The Act of Killing is an extremely difficult and disturbing film to watch, but it’s one of the most inventive and important documentaries ever made about humans and their capacity for ‘evil’.
Following a coup in 1965, the Indonesian military carried out the systematic execution of over one million people accused of being one of, or connected to, the hated Communists. In many regions the killings, supported by the West, were performed by civilians recruited by the army and organised into paramilitary groups. In North Sumatra they were largely taken from the groups of gangsters that worked the area. Ever since the massacres, the government has celebrated this extermination as a successful patriotic struggle, and the perpetrators are celebrated as national heroes, placed in positions of power and honour.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer had worked in Indonesia for many years, primarily with survivors or relatives of those killed in the genocide. Whilst he found it extremely difficult to get the victims to speak freely, and without intervention from the authorities, Oppenheimer and his crew discovered that access to those responsible for the murders was wide open. The leaders he spoke with bragged about their crimes; men who recounted their stories proudly and saw mass murder as a legitimate basis of governance.
The Act of Killing primarily focuses on one of those men, Anwar Congo, who went from small-time gangster scalping tickets at the local cinema, to death squad leader, personally responsible for killing hundreds of people. Seeking to understand Anwar and his group’s role in the killings, and eventually the regime they helped build, Oppenheimer has them demonstrate and re-enact their crimes. Noting their love of cinema, how they would copy methods of murder from the screen, how different film genres would influence them to kill in a different way, and their desire to be like their movie star heroes, he asks Anwar and his friends to re-enact the killings in any way, any genre they want.
This is the beginning of a very surreal, very revealing journey into the minds of these men. It asks questions like how do these men see themselves, and how do they want to be seen by history? The film re-enactment process creates an environment in which the killers can explore their memories and feelings, and provides a fascinating, and often nauseating insight into their imaginations, and that of a society founded on systematic and continuing violence and corruption. It creates a space in which the killings and their dramatisation can be discussed freely, and offers a deeper connection with the moment than simple testimony might. The film also charts the personal journey of Anwar, from proud local hero, dancing on the spot of multiple murders, to a man who has put himself in the place of his victims, someone seeking to come to terms with what he has really done, with the nightmares that fill his dreams.
The Act of Killing is unlike any film I have seen before. At times blackly comic, at others a horrible, intriguing, strange, important piece of cinema. It is not just about Indonesia, it’s an allegory for situations across the world – it’s about the power of confronting the past, of stories and imagination, and ultimately the utterly baffling nature of the human race.
The Act of Killing is screening at select cinemas.
THE ACT OF KILLING
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Producers: Werner Herzog, Errol Morris
Distributor: Madman Films