“All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.”
The Act of Killing opens with the above quote from Voltaire but soon switches to a scene showing dancers clad in vivid pink outfits emerging from the mouth of a giant fish. Following this we see the dancers, now at the base of a waterfall, surrounding a priest-like figure, arms aloft pointing towards the heavens with a man in a bright blue drag outfit at his side. A man off camera shouts words of encouragement to the dancers instructing them to show joy in their expressions. Underneath the false smiles there is a glimmer of utter fear. This opening exemplifies both the surreal nature not only of the film that follows but also the events that led to its creation.
The origins of this documentary were seeded back in the 1960s when a coup in Indonesia ushered in military rule. A purge of over half a million people labelled as ‘communists’ occurred. The purge was carried out by paramilitary groups and gangsters on behalf of the military. Persecution and the use of fear tactics against possible voices of dissent continue to this day. Those responsible not only escaped prosecution for their crimes but now lead somewhat of a celebrity lifestyle, regarded by some as heroes and others as a scourge, their extortion and abuse continuing unabated. The film follows Anwar Congo who was heavily involved in the atrocities. Joshua Oppenheimer, directing his first feature, presents them with an opportunity to “create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished”. The title ‘The Act of Killing‘ therefore is layered with duality, referring to the murders originally committed and the theatrical reenactments that unfold during the film.
Anwar Congo is a self-described ‘movie gangster’. The former drawn from his love of Hollywood, he reminisces about working in a cinema at several points; the latter due to his actions to preserve a free way of life in Indonesia. He literally translates gangster as “free-man”. Through his interest in stars like Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and John Wayne he embraces the opportunity to give his story form, dipping into genre such as gangster movies, war films and musicals. In recreating these memories, his group is forced to face up to its past actions, and each deals with them in different way. These constructs do not serve as a glorification of their actions, instead serving as a cathartic act as well as further feeding into their belief that the actions taken were necessary. It is clear that each member has particular issues, most medicating with alcohol and drugs. Some find reasons to justify what they did, others feign obliviousness to what occurred. What is clear is that each is a tortured soul, their efforts to make light of what happened contrasting sharply during their recreations. The movie is unsettling, not just because of the subject matter, but by the casual flippancy of its subjects. Congo, himself, being the focus and demonstrating this emotional see-saw throughout. He switches from demonstrating the easiest and cleanest way to strangle a man with a wire and piece of wood before criticizing his own choice of attire in the recreation. A gangster would never wear white during an execution.
I really can’t remember the last time I entered a film with such apprehension and intrigue. If you have Werner Herzog (Executive Producer) in a pre-movie interview warning you about the nature of the film you’re about to see, you’re going to be wary. The events discussed and recreated are shocking. From simpler moments such as someone dancing the Cha-cha on a spot where he used to execute people to the surreal musical number set to Born Free where ghosts of the dead thank Anwar Congo for sending them to heaven. Each interview and recreation is steeped in the subject’s own belief that their actions were necessary and justified. A belief that is slowly eroded as the film progresses. Perhaps most shocking is the recreation of an attack upon a village which seems to be the turning point where many of those involved begin to fathom what they did. The transition from boasting about killing and rape with impunity to the simple uttering of “I never thought it would look so bad” reflects on how well Oppenheimer peeled back the layers of these people easing them into a situation where they finally start to see the magnitude of their sins.
“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”
While shocking, the film does not clearly portray the men as wholly evil, rather it lets them tell their own tale and frames the recreations within the political and social context of Indonesia. It is not solely about good versus evil, but the grey. Which actions were taken and what people ultimately tolerate feed into this grey area of human nature. It’s shocking to see the extremes people go to and justifications that are made to preserve their way of life. There is a scene in the film where Anwar Congo is playing with his Grandson who has injured a duck, breaking a wing. He is seen chastising him and trying to get him to pet the duck nicely, yet has no qualms about showing the same grandson a reenactment of an execution later in the movie. Violence breeds violence; and because of the violence that filled the lives of the Indonesian people, it’s no wonder such horrifying things are not just tolerated, but glorified. Even when subjects admit to unspeakable acts it is accompanied by claims of these actions being ‘unavoidable’ or ‘necessary’ to preserve their way of life. A lack of culpability is reinforced by the general populace. Locals and media show equal measures of fear and awe. Even describing on a national TV show some of the murders committed and methods used, it is to the sound of applause, not condemnation.
While disturbing, the film is at times capable of invoking laughter, both genuine and as a coping mechanism to handle the discomfort of what one is seeing. Some of the reenactments orchestrated by the gangsters are just hilarious and lead to some of the intensely surreal scenes mentioned above. Congo, himself, appoints one of his men to the role of ‘comedy relief’ as is necessary for any movie production. It is unclear whether he is aware this man fulfills that role in real life as well.
Some complaints I have read about the film concern the lack of a stance on the actual actions taken or judgement on the men involved. Oppenheimer shows great restraint in letting things unfold and not pushing too much or too quickly. The interviewees reveal more and more of themselves without cross examination. It is a valid question whether the fleeting moments of realization are enough of a punishment dealt during the course of this production. Another critique I have seen is the lack of any perspective from the victims or survivors of the mass-killings. In actuality, one member of the group recants a story about his Chinese father-in-law being murdered and having to reclaim his body when he was a 6 year old boy. He confronts his associates, tries to frame it in a ‘non-accusatory’ manner to ‘help’ the production of the film with a perspective for a scene but the emotion and pain is clear. I cannot think of a better ‘survivor’ to confront them than one of their own who truly highlights the indiscriminate manner of their killing. You want these men to see what you see, reel at the atrocities in the same way your own mind does. When it happens, when a person whispers “Have I sinned?” it only serves to compound the power of the film. Nothing they do can be enough, there is no atonement, there is just a collection of old men haunted by their past.
Watching The Act of Killing was probably the most powerful, mesmerizing experience I have ever had in a theater. This is no hyperbole, this is a small attempt to highlight what this film achieves. You cannot script something like this, Oppenheimer hasn’t so much made this film as he has eked it out of the shadows, magnificently bringing this shame to light with a shocking elegance. As the credits role, stay in your seats. I think you will anyway to absorb a little of what was just on screen, but the credits are fascinating to see and show the bravery and audacity of so many involved in making this film. I applaud them all.
“Oppenheimer hasn’t so much made this film as he has eked it out of the shadows, magnificently bringing this shame to light with a shocking elegance.”