Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Country: Norway/Denmark/United Kingdom
If you’ve ever doubted the power of art, The Act of Killing is a movie that you need to see. A documentary about the 1965-66 anti-Communist purge in Indonesia, the film does something rather extraordinary in that it at once shows film as a distancing medium which allows the perpetrators of atrocity to openly discuss their crimes by dressing them up as “scenes,” and as a medium of emotional immediacy, participating in which forces at least one of the murderers to finally reckon with the things that he’s done and be overcome with revulsion. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a contributor who has remained anonymous for fear of retribution by the Indonesian government (which says it all, really, about the country’s relationship with this part of its history), The Act of Killing is one of the most haunting documentaries you’ll ever see.
The men interviewed throughout the film were, at the time of the New Order of President Suharto following a failed coup, gangsters recruited to join the government’s new death squads and tasked with hunting down and murdering Communists. Given this enormous amount of government sanctioned power, the men used it to advance their own interests, consolidating their power by exploiting people, extorting money from them with the threat that they could be found to be Communists and murdered without hesitation. The protection racket that the situation created carries on in the film’s present-day, with the documentary capturing its subjects intimidating local storekeepers and being given large cash payoffs. Far from trying to hide their past, the men in the film are entirely unafraid to admit to the things that they’ve done, taking the documentarians on tours of the locations where they carried out their crimes and describing in horrific detail (and with no small amount of pride) what they did and how they did it.
This act of storytelling is not limited to being related through words. So brazen are these men, so secure in the fact that they won’t be punished for their actions but will, in fact, be protected as a result of other participants still holding positions of political power, that they agree to re-enact the murders for the camera. Sometimes these re-enactments are staged in a straightforward fashion, sometimes in a more stylized way designed to evoke the subject’s choice of film genre, with scenes featuring the real-life killers dressed up as movie gangsters, as cowboys, as characters in a musical, sometimes playing the role they played in real life, sometimes playing the role of their victims. One man, Anwar Congo (who is, for lack of a better term, the “star” of this film), describes how he got his start as a criminal selling black market movie tickets and used his favorite movies to get ideas for creative ways to execute people. It’s Congo who, eventually, begins to break in front of the camera, shaken by the experience of playing the role of one of the murder victims.
While some documentaries try to obscure their point-of-view and present themselves as being unbiased “observers” to a situation, rather than the force giving shape to it, The Act of Killing is pretty upfront about what it’s doing, which is confronting the perpetrators of horrific crimes with their own actions and peeling back the layers to see what role, if any, guilt has played in their lives in the decades since the purges. For some, guilt seems to be a foreign concept, and they characterize what they did as a form of government service (this goes not just for the men who carried out the killings, but also people not directly involved in taking lives, such as a reporter who admits to inserting false information into reports on deaths to “confirm” that those killed were guilty of being Communists). For others, feelings of guilt are present but expressed in different ways. One man admits that what they did was wrong, but seems, at most, casually resigned to the knowledge that he made a mistake, while another deals with his guilt by denying that he had any involvement in the killings at all and is only guilty by association. While the film has been criticized for giving the killers a platform and focusing on them instead of on the victims, it can’t be denied that one of the most fascinating things about the film is watching the interactions between these men who share a common experience, but have internalized and express their guilt and culpability in such disparate ways.
Yet, despite the place in the spotlight being granted to the killers, the most powerful scenes in the film are those that result from the enduring effect of the murders on the community in which the men live. Early in the film, two of the killers seek out locals to participate in a re-enactment of one of the events they participated in, and the people around them nervously decline, as if afraid that this is a trap and that their participation in a filmed re-enactment will be twisted around into “proof” that will be used against them to justify imprisoning or killing them. Later, a man relates to Congo that when he was a boy, his stepfather was taken away by the death squad and he had to help retrieve and bury the body. The story is disturbing in and of itself, but what happens next is even more unsettling because he’s asked to play the role of the victim in a re-enactment and as he pantomimes being murdered by these men who, at one point, really did murder someone in the same fashion, it becomes apparent that he’s not acting, that he truly is terrified and pained by what he’s experiencing. The trauma of what he’s experiencing is brutal to see, but the film is not exploitative about it, using it instead to underscore what this story is really supposed to be about. The killers may be the subjects, but The Act of Killing is ultimately not about them. It’s about what they did and how what they did has continued to shape their country and echo down through generations. The Act of Killing is not just a powerful film, it’s an absolutely essential one that shines a stark light on the banality of evil and the psychology of fear.