The very moment I cracked open the program guide at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to plan out my screening schedule for the day, one film listing stopped me dead. It featured an otherworldly photograph of an gigantic, ominous fish surrounded by hula dancers and a synopsis that began: “in this chilling and inventive documentary executive-produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, the unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are challenged to re-enact their many murders in the style of the American movies they love.” An anxious stir formed in my gut and I was unable to concentrate on anything else. Not only did I have to see this movie, but I knew at that moment that Drafthouse Films simply, absolutely had to distribute The Act Of Killing. And I hadn’t even seen it yet.
A few days later during its pre-premiere press screening, I finally got my chance. Exiting the theater I felt chilled to the bone, I was speechless, my forehead was numb from slapping it for the past 2 hours and I was overwhelmed with a sense that I may have just experienced what could be the most important film of the decade. I looked over to the dazed person next to me and he remarked, “I have never seen anything like that before.” This was BIG. Bigger than any “movie.” Bigger than Indonesia. Bigger than the Toronto International Film Festival. HUGE.
After viewing the film, it was no surprise to me that Errol Morris and Werner Herzog had united to support this monumental documentary. I had always been interested in Herzog’s approach to documentary filmmaking and what he believes constitutes “truth” in the art form. Herzog had always argued “just because something is factually true, it does not constitute truth, per se.” If that were true, the Manhattan phone book would be "the book of books," he told me and a VICE film crew when we interviewed him this past May about The Act Of Killing. He is after a self-described “ecstatic truth,” somewhere blurred in the lines between "fact" and "truth."
Joshua Oppenheimer, the first-time filmmaker of The Act Of Killing is after a similar truth in this film. By utilizing reenactments, a tool that Errol Morris has used several times in his work, and hypnotic surrealism, Josh aims to access the disturbing mindset of these former executioners and how they ultimately want the world to perceive them. I can say that never before have I felt the feeling of wandering inside the subconscious of a man who believes it was “okay” to kill. And that is what makes Oppenheimer's work a powerful milestone in the landscape of documentary cinema.
In April, we teamed up with VICE, who was equally passionate about the film, and set out to Cambridge, MA to interview Errol Morris at his office while he was finishing the final edit of his upcoming doc The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld. And shortly thereafter Werner Herzog was also interviewed from the top of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles for this piece above.