'The Act of Killing': A stunning documentary that's up for an Oscar

March 2, 2014 

When I saw "Blackfish" at last year's Sarasota Film Festival, I figured it was a good bet to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I suspect most of the people in the packed house at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, where it played on the festival's opening night, felt the same way. The film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, was poignant, riveting and enlightening. It was one of the best documentaries ever.

When "Blackfish" generated a buzz that very few documentaries have ever achieved, when it actually started changing people's minds, when heavyweight show-biz people started canceling their shows at Sea World, its Oscar prospects seemed assured.

When it didn't even get nominated, people were outraged. I know I was. Some people suspected Sea World had somehow wielded its corporate power to try to dampen the damning film's momentum.

There's a simpler explanation, though. "Blackfish" may have been one of the most effective documentaries ever made, but another 2013 documentary is such a masterpiece of documentary imagination that the Cowperthwaite film never stood a chance at winning an Oscar.

You may have heard of it, but you probably haven't seen it. "The Act of Killing" hasn't been shown widely in this area. But it's worth making significant effort to find a way to see it.

Joshua Oppenheimer's film, which boasts famed documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as its executive producers, introduces us to the normal-looking, affable men who in 1965 murdered about a million people in Cambodia. They were, by their own admissions, thugs and gangsters who killed "Communists." They applied that term to anyone whom the military government disliked, including all Chinese people.

There was no shortage of victims. In the film, a newspaper publisher explains that when he interviewed the "Communists," he would invent their answers to make them look bad. His job as "journalist," he says in the film, was to make people hate Commu

nists.

Many of the killers are still alive, in their 60s and 70s now. Oppenheimer befriends some of them and offers to make a Hollywood-style movie about their killings, of which they are unashamed, even proud.

They first tell him about the killings. They want to make sure the film is exactly accurate.

"Many people were killed here," says one, a slim grandfather dressed in a crisp short-sleeved shirt and white slacks as he stands on a rooftop where he killed countless people. "They died unnatural deaths. They arrived here perfectly healthy and when they got here they were beaten up and died. Dragged around, and dumped."

Cleaning up the blood from the beatings was a hassle, he says, so they instead strangled their victims with wire. He smiles as he simulates wrapping a wire around the neck of a bound and gagged man. Then he laughs and dances a cha-cha.

Oppenheimer lets the killers choose the style of their scenes in the film. Some don cowboy hats for a John Wayne-style Western. One has dancing girls undulating in front of a waterfall.

Some sequences are more realistic. A Chinese man who has been hired to play a victim breaks down, begging and sobbing, genuinely fearing for his life. "It's OK if you really kill him," says one of the killers who's on the set.

Late in the film, one of the killers watches the footage of the simulated killings. He cuddles with his grandsons, wanting them to get a look at what he did when he was young. But when he sees it himself, he feels shame for the first time. This must be how I made my victims feel, he says to Oppenheimer. "No," Oppenheimer says. "You know this is only a movie. Your victims knew they were being tortured to death."

Fifty years after the killings, the elderly man understands, for the first time, that he is evil. You can see the realization on his face.

Not too many people have seen "The Act of Killing" yet, so it may not win the Oscar. But years from now, it should stand as one of the most powerful films, documentary or otherwise, ever made. No one who sees it will ever forget it.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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