Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, 2012
The worst, most oblivious parts of humanity are on display in the strange and striking new documentary The Act of Killing. Hyperbolic or not, it’s hard to imagine many other documentaries quite like this one, in which the director calls upon many of its participants to reenact, as they please, a number of harrowing and gruesome events from 40 years ago. Whatever else can be said about this film, there may be no greater compliment to offer it than saying the prospect of rewatching The Act of Killing is impossible to imagine. This is not a world worth revisiting, because it’s our own.
In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, which has been comfortably in place ever since, even (or especially) after various gangsters were put in charge of putting down anyone who would oppose this dictatorship, dubbed a Communist even if they had no such specific leanings. Over a million people died at the hands of these men, many of whom remain proud of the deaths they caused. As a way to help anyone who might find this boasting hard to grapple with (i.e., almost everyone outside of Indonesia), The Act of Killing becomes as much a documentary about gangsters like Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, as well as new blood like Herman Koto, as it is about those men making short movies depicting the gruesome acts they committed, in any way they like. Thus, we get surreal images like beautiful Indonesian dancers and Herman, in drag (he’s in drag in many of these sequences, meant as a flamboyant attempt at comic relief), dancing at the mouth of a giant-sized fish.
It’s hard to pick what’s most disturbing about The Act of Killing; there are innumerable pieces of evidence from which to choose. Is it the scene in which Congo, promoting The Act of Killing, or at least the mini-movies he’s making within the larger project, goes onto a state-supported talk show and is greeted with applause about exactly how accurate he’s trying to make innocent death look? Or maybe it’s the scene where Herman chides his daughter for crying after a particularly nasty reenactment of a village being burned down; he snaps at her for making him look bad. Perhaps the scene where Anwar uses a smiling friend to depict how he would strangle people to death with wires is the most frightening and uncomfortable. If anything, after two hours, The Act of Killing becomes too uncomfortable, too oppressive.
What weight do these deaths have on men like Anwar Congo? The total lack of awareness on his part—he’s a magnetic figure, maybe all the more so because he doesn’t fully grasp how terrible a man he is—is haunting, especially in the closing moments. Only a few times does Oppenheimer—or someone else behind the camera—insert themselves into the proceedings, and even then, it’s just as an offscreen voice. He tries to get these men, specifically Congo and Zulkadry, to account for their actions over 40 years ago. The most fascinating figure is Zulkadry, who is the most unapologetic—offering himself up to the Hague in a proposed hypothetical situation—and the most clear-eyed. The standout sequence is one in which the men attempt to recreate a notably unpleasant torture in which the playacting victim is more emotional than any of the others shown onscreen. Zulkadry shrewdly points out that should the scene be successful, it will convince Indonesian audiences, or help them realize, that the dictatorship was built on a lie: that Communists weren’t actually worthy of death. Zulkadry doesn’t contest that truth. He simply questions whether it’s the kind of truth that people should hear, whether it’s a good truth.
The Act of Killing is a film packed with unfortunate, inconvenient, and bad truths. In an early bit of text, it’s said that Western governments basically looked in the other direction at this bloody coup d’etat in the 1960s, and continue to do so. The rest of the film doesn’t directly touch on how we, as a society, have allowed this atrocity to go unanswered. What may be most important is that each of these men have begun to come to terms with what they did. Where Zulkadry is forthright but uncaring, Congo, the film’s central figure, gradually becomes more disillusioned and haunted with his actions. We keep hearing him talk about how the word “gangster” derives from “free men,” that his being a gangster, first working with black-market movie tickets and now evolving to celebrated mass murderer, makes him freer than other, lesser men. Yet as we watch Congo’s face throughout the two hours of The Act of Killing, it is clearer and clearer that he’s just now realizing (or allowing himself to realize) the severity of what his life amounts to. In the final moments, Congo tries to purge himself literally, to vomit, and fails, even if the soundtrack echoes with the guttural sounds of his retching. Anwar Congo walks away a physically free man, but The Act of Killing, a haunting, inexplicable documentary, argues that mentally, he’s only started to acknowledge his self-created prison.
— Josh Spiegel