Beyond the Lights is released straight-to-DVD here in the UK this week, and this makes sense to a degree. On paper, it sounds exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the bargain bin of a Matalan or appearing on one of the channels somewhere in the late 30s on the freeview listings. It’s a crying shame that it’s being judged on first impressions, though, because in spite of first appearances, it’s a passionate, emotionally intellgent film that transcends its clichéd concept through the sheer force of its writing and performances. It also helps that the film is committed to presenting its world as the same as our own: the places are real, the award ceremonies are real (the Billboards and BETs), the references to social media and other current pop songs don’t feel forced, and Chaka Khan even pops up at one point to compliment the protagonist’s hair.
The Act of Killing could have been extremely dangerous if mishandled. When director Joshua Oppenheimer was unable to tell the story of Indonesia’s 1960s genocide from the perspective of its survivors due to the danger in which he would place them, he instead chose to tell it from the perspective of its perpetrators: the death squads that murdered as many as one million so-called communists between 1965 and 1966, and who Indonesia now celebrates as war heroes. Focusing on a handful of movie-obsessed gangsters and finding that they were more than willing to divulge every detail of the atrocities they committed, Oppenheimer suggests he gives them the means to make a film of their deeds/ The result is one of the most surreal, dizzying, and, eventually, harrowing making-of documentaries ever recorded.