The Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing is a torturous delve into the minds of murderers. It is also one of the most surreal and profound documentaries ever made.
In 1965 there was a military coup against the Indonesian government, which had recently allied itself with the Communist movement. Over the course of a year, more than a million people suspected of Communist activities were rounded up by barbaric death squads and slaughtered. The victims included former government workers, Indonesian Communist Party affiliates, and local ethnic Chinese — the latter of which were extorted for large sums of money, and if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay, they were murdered in cold blood. The military used low-level gangsters known for selling black market movie theatre tickets to do their dirty work, and in their hands a monstrous genocide occurred.
The new documentary, The Act of Killing, chronicles these events in post-mortem by interviewing notorious death squad leader, Anwar Congo, and his various associates who revel in the details of their horrific testimony over 45 years after the coup. The film could have easily been an impossible sit due to the nature of its subject and the near risk of glorifying the very monsters it tries to expose. Instead, Co-directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker perversely turn the subjects in on themselves by asking them to recreate their acts of violence on film in any way they see fit. Through these Hollywood movie-inspired recreations, Anwar Congo is forced to bear witness to the very atrocities he helped commit. As a result, The Act of Killing becomes a compelling study into the mind of a murderer and one of the most disturbing documentaries in living memory.
The film starts with a stark title card explaining the backstory behind the mass-murder before jumping right into the killer’s recollection of events. The Act of Killing does not try to present an in-depth history, and any political reference is sparse. The film’s real objective is to let these gangsters tell their side of the story and it’s obvious from the outset that they live for the attention. Anwar Congo is celebrated for being one of the founding fathers of the far right-wing parliamentary organization Pemuda Pancasila, which was born from the death squads and its members include high-level government officials among the gangsters. The documentary shows many rallies where they celebrate their “victory” over the Communists and brag about the influence they hold within their own government. These men have never been called to answer for their crimes against humanity, and many of them still exert their ability over the local Chinese who live amongst the community. Pemuda Pancasila is a symbol of overbearing strength and their blood-soaked fists help keep the country living in fear and in line. There is no remorse here, only an unquenchable thirst for power. Much is made by Congo and his pals about how the word gangster actually translates to “free men”. In their minds, because they ravaged and took what they wanted through violence, they are free. Their only desire in life is to take what they want when they want it.
Toward the beginning of the feature Congo describes in explicit detail how the mass killings were carried out. At first there was a pointless interrogation where they determined whether or not the accused was in fact a communist. It was then followed by a long bout of torture before they were taken to the rooftop of a newspaper publishing building and beaten to death. The free-flowing blood and cries of agony began to take a toll on Congo, so he came up with a more “humane” way of disposing of the victims – he choked them to death with wire. This idea was taken from his days of scalping movie theatre tickets and his love of the Hollywood gangster film genre. In a disturbing sequence, Congo actually demonstrates how he would do this in the exact location in which it was done. He then smiles at the camera and begins dementedly dancing in order to demonstrate how he would remain “happy” and sane through all of the death. The detachment from reality here is sickeningly painful to watch and to frequently hear the gangsters describe their “humane” efforts to wipe out an entire population is disturbing in its complacency.
The Act of Killing’s boldest move is when they ask the gangsters to create their own movie depicting the events through their lens of contorted memory. To take the standard documentary reenactment trope and hand it over to a film’s own subject is a twist of genius and it enables the film to find its humanity. By allowing Anwar Congo to live in the shoes of his own victims, he begins to finally understand the impact of his actions and the film jarringly opens itself up to the possibility that these perceived monsters have a soul and are capable of remorse. Though the killers gladly tackle the project, throughout the course of their moviemaking Congo’s associates become increasingly scared of what might happen to their image if the film were ever to see the light of day. At one point, while they recreate the massacre of an entire village, a Pemuda Pancasila leader stops filming in order to pull the documentarians aside to assure them that they were not that vicious at the time of the event. So powerful are the images that they are creating, that the almost five-decade old mental wall comes tumbling down and they are forced to reconcile their atrocities.
In the film’s most moving segment, Anwar Congo sits in front of his television to watch the film he has created by the use of Hollywood genres including gangster films, westerns, and (oddly enough) musicals. He asks the filmmakers to play the scene in which he portrays a communist being interrogated and killed while he invites his grandchildren to sit on his lap and watch with him. At first he laughs at the screen and proclaims “look it’s Grandpa being beaten!” The children smile and watch in completely disinterested and desensitized fashion as Congo begins to clutch them ever closer to him. As the images become more disturbing the grandchildren are dismissed and he is left alone to face the scene himself. At the end Congo is brought to tears as he says that he now understands how bad his victims must have felt, but Joshua Oppenheimer interjects from behind camera and rightly claims “they felt much worse because they lived it.”
Back on the rooftop where so many hundreds of people were murdered by his own hands, Congo again tries to describe how he went about his job, but before he can get more than a few words out he begins to retch. The reality of his crimes finally comes to fruition and the audience is given the cathartic release they so desperately need. The Act of Killing is a brave documentary that takes many risks in its exploration into the minds of killers. It is handsomely crafted and the recreations are so surreal in their depiction that it gives the film an almost otherworldly quality. There are no easy answers here and the very nature of its subject may be too much for many viewers to handle, but those willing to brave it will come away deeply rewarded. In interviews Joshua Oppenheimer has described his film as a “documentary of the imagination”. It is precisely this trait that makes the film so haunting and its impact unforgettable.