Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review: The Act of Killing (2013)

* * * *

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

The Act of Killing is easily one of the most upsetting films I've ever seen. I suppose that that's a good thing, all things considered, and it certainly speaks to the power of this documentary, but there were definitely moments scattered throughout the film when I thought that I just wouldn't be able to keep watching because it so disturbing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a contributor who has remained anonymous for fear of retribution, The Act of Killing is an utterly haunting documentary that brings the brutal reality of historical violence into sharp, visceral relief by dressing it up in the pretense of fiction. As a viewer you walk away from the film not only amazed at what the directors managed to pull off, but at the ways that people can compartmentalize themselves, tucking away the horrors that they've either perpetrated or experienced and moving on as if nothing had happened.

The focal point of The Act of Killing is the 1965-66 anti-Communist purge in Indonesia following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement. In the aftermath of the failed coup, which ushered in the "New Order" of President Suharto, government backed death squads composed of gangsters were formed with the task of hunting down and murdering Communists, though it may be more accurate to state that they were allowed to murder "Communists." Using their carte blanche of violence, they consolidated their power by exploiting people, extorting money from ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in exchange for their lives, and creating a protection racket that the film demonstrates is still alive and well today as it follows its subjects to local shops where they bully storekeepers into handing over large sums of cash. The main subjects of the film are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, both gangsters and members of the death squad, the former also a founder of the powerful paramilitary organization that was borne of the death squads. Of all the shocking things in the film, one of the most astonishing is how openly Congo and Zulkadry (and others) discuss what they did, not only providing the details of their killings but happily reenacting them for the cameras as well. Early in the film Congo takes the filmmakers to a rooftop where many of his murders took place, explaining that at first he and his cohorts would beat people to death but that because the resulting gore created too great a stench, he later developed a means of murdering people using wire, which he then demonstrates with a volunteer, seemingly oblivious to how evil this all makes him seem.

A lot of the film is made up of reenactments and preparation for reenactments of the killings. Sometimes these are staged in a straightforward fashion, as in the case where a village is "razed," but many of the reenactments occur in a "stylized" fashion meant to evoke the subjects' favorite film genres, as Congo, a film buff who got his start as a criminal selling black market movie tickets, reveals in interview segments that he got some of his ideas for the executions from his favorite movies. Some scenes see the real life killers dressed up as movie gangsters, as cowboys, and as characters in a musical, and though often they play the same role they played in real life, sometimes they also take on the role of the victim in the incident being recounted. Throughout much of the film Congo displays an unwavering pride in what he's done, secure in the knowledge that he's protected by the fact that others who participated along with him remain in positions of political power and that the corruption wrought by them will ensure that he won't have to face any consequences for his actions. However, after Congo plays the role of victim in one of the reenactments, he becomes visibly shaken by the experience and confesses to Oppenheimer that he felt he experienced what his victims experienced. When Oppenheimer (whose voice is heard but who remains off screen) suggests that he has not, in fact, experienced the same thing as his victims, as he could feel safe knowing that he was only acting whereas the real victims knew that they were going to die, a further sense of doubt seems to creep into Congo's previously confident facade.

The primary purpose of the film is to confront the perpetrators with their own actions and see what role guilt has played in their lives in the decades since the purge. For some, including Congo at first, guilt seems to be a foreign concept; they speak openly about what they did, whether it was actively participating in murders or in actively supporting the government's actions, as in the case of a reporter who participates as an interview subject and readily admits to inserting false information into reports on the deaths in order to make it seem as though the victims were guilty of being Communists. For others feelings of guilt are present but affect different people in different ways. One man admits that what they did was wrong, though he doesn't appear to feel bad about it so much as casually resigned to the knowledge that he made a mistake, while another has reacted to his guilt by trying to pretend that he wasn't involved in what happened at all, that he knew nothing and is only guilty by association, an idea that the men around him decry. As they point out to him that there's no way he couldn't have known, the expression on his face grows darker and darker, more and more closed off, and it's fascinating to watch the interaction between the group of men who share a common experience and guilt but who have internalized it in such disparate ways.

But as fascinating as it often is to watch the filmmakers examine how the memory of what transpired has affected the perpetrators, the most powerful scenes in the film result from the enduring effect of the purge on the community in which Congo and Zulkadry live. Early in the film the two men seek out locals to participate in a reenactment and they all decline nervously, as if afraid they may be walking into a trap. Later a man tells Congo, Zulkadry, and some others, about how when he was a young boy his stepfather was taken away by the death squad and how he had to help retrieve and bury the body. The story itself is disturbing because he tells it in a way that he's obviously trying to walk a fine line between confronting these men with the pain they caused while not openly blaming them because to do so may result in him being punished, but what happens next is even more so because he's asked to play the role of the victim in a reenactment and there comes a point where he is clearly not acting. The naked trauma of what he's experiencing is almost impossible to watch, but it's something that's absolutely essential to the film rather than exploitative. Without scenes like this you might end up feeling a little bit for Congo, whose guilt finally seems to get the best of him in the closing scene, and you might forget what the documentary is really supposed to be about. The killers are the subject, but The Act of Killing is 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. Though it can't claim be a comprehensive investigation of the anti-Communist purges, The Act of Killing is still a powerful and very necessary film, one which is as stirring as it is difficult to watch.


Wendell Ottley said...

This is such a disturbing film. I sat with my mouth agape in shock through most of it. The reenactment of the village massacre is the most frightening on a visceral level. I think the talk show they went on is even scarier, though. They were tossed softball questions and treated like heroes by people who know good and damn well what they did. That shows a startling image of some deeply ingrained socio-political problems and an overwhelming lack of respect for human life.

Norma Desmond said...

I couldn't agree more.

keith71_98 said...

This was one of the strangest but most incredible and uncomfortable films I have ever seen. Disturbing is a good word for it and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Wow.