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Ballad of Narayama

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If We Picked the Winners 2014: Best Documentary

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Olivia Collette makes the case for the best documentary of 2013: "The Act of Killing". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choice for Best Picture on Friday. 

Let me be clear about this: each movie in the Best Documentary Feature category deserves the nod. I should also disclose that I am firmly in Jehane Noujaim’s corner. I don’t know how she manages to get as close as she does to her subjects, nor how she keeps dodging death, but it’s a testament to her fervor and fearlessness.

The only way I could pick a winner was to narrow it down to the most unique experience of the five. In that respect, “The Act of Killing” is distinct not because of its premise, but because of the exercise it gives itself.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks Anwar Congo, a major player in the Indonesian paramilitary Pancasila Youth, to help him film re-enactments of the killings that occurred during the organization’s anti-communist purge of 1965-66. Congo brags about having tortured and killed over 1,000 during the purge. He’s keen to relate the war crimes to a wider public, even hoping the whole thing will look like the old gangster movies that influenced the style and manner of his murders.

By reconstructing the events, the Pancasila members deconstruct their involvement in them. In one scene, a Pancasila leader is worried that a re-enactment makes the organization look too ruthless, despite admitting to its verity. In another, two men debate the semantics of sadism and cruelty; one insists they’re the same, but the other believes cruelty is the less severe of the two, and won’t accept that what they did to the communists was sadistic.

“The Act of Killing” challenges non-fiction by embedding Pancasila members in sometimes surreal retellings of their own truths. The discussions surrounding how to recreate events accurately are all the more fascinating because some of the folks have buried the purge beneath decades of denial.

It’s not surprising that the staged and real-life scenes are often difficult to tell apart. At its core, “The Act of Killing” is about the lies we tell ourselves to make the truth easier to swallow.

Click here for our winner for Best Director and come back tomorrow for Best Actor and Actress.

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