The documentary The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer with Christine Cynn and a co-director billed only as Anonymous — like much of the crew, for obvious reasons — leaves you immediately wanting to see a documentary about its own making. The premise is audacious: The filmmakers approach confessed killers who took part in the state-sanctioned mass murder of accused "communists" in Indonesia during the 1960s. As many of the (now old, now honored) men were gangsters who shook down movie theaters at the time, and remain devotees of Hollywood movies to this day, the filmmakers offer to let them set their image by restaging their crimes — in the style of their favorite Tinseltown genre, be it film noir or splashy musical.
It sounds exploitative, and the filmmakers certainly wring cruel ironies — and no small amount of incongruous black comedy — from the killers' enthusiasm for the project, from casting and costuming to directing. (At times it suggests a malignant version of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence, which restages a violent incident from the director's past from competing vantage points.) Revisiting the sites of past crimes, even cheerfully demonstrating proper garrote technique, they recall the good old days of stabbings and bludgeonings like old-timers describing a stickball game. Those who saw Hannah Arendt recently at The Belcourt will be astounded to watch the banality of evil replaced by something very much like the joviality of evil.
Film here is a two-edged sword: if it's able to stoke murderous delusion, it's also equipped to expose it. Granted, the killers talk about all the ways they copied movie stars on their bloody rounds, taking deadly inspiration even from Elvis Presley vehicles. But the filmmakers must have intuited that even though their subjects love escapist films, film will not allow them to escape so easily. Chipping away at the killers' denial, in ways direct confrontation couldn't, the ridiculous reenactments start to yield fissures of empathy and dawning horror in some of the aged participants. The movie culminates in one of the killers (shown celebrated as a hero in the country's current political landscape) returning to a crime site, unable to purge himself of literally gut-wrenching guilt.
Counting Werner Herzog and Errol Morris among its executive producers, The Act of Killing opens Friday at The Belcourt for a week's run. Here's an illuminating statement by Oppenheimer on the film's background, and clips of his appearance this week on The Daily Show.