Film Review: ‘The Act of Killing’ (2013)
The day before I saw The Act of Killing, someone I met at another movie told me it would change my life. He was right. I walked into that theater and someone else came out. Or, I suppose, someone else walked into that theater, and I came out. Because I’m here now, and I’m telling you that if The Act of Killing plays in a theater within 25 miles of your home, you must go.
In October of 1965, a failed coup attempt by a group of Communist sympathizers or junior military officers or foreign spies—nobody knows for sure, even now—led to the purging of Communists from the Indonesian archipelago. First came political and military leaders. Then came civilians suspected of supporting Communism, and any other group small enough to be swept up in hatred: infidels against Islam on Muslim islands, infidels against Hinduism on Hindu islands, ethnic Chinese on every island.
Over 500,000 Indonesians—maybe as many as a million—didn’t survive the massacre. Joshua Oppenheimer tried to make a movie about the children of the dead, and those aging accused Communists who somehow made it out alive. He was arrested several times in the process. Indonesia doesn’t like film directors picking at its old wounds.
So instead, Oppenheimer made a different movie. The Act of Killing stars a group of killers, now balding, potbellied, wealthy, and respected. They are asked to describe their days as counterrevolutionaries and/or gangsters (the distinction didn’t exist during the six months of death). If possible, Oppenheimer tells them, they are to reenact their heroic deeds. They comply with gusto.
I thought the movie was faked when this introduction became action. Anwar Congo, slim and well-dressed, combs his neighborhood for actors. Assembling a group of parents and children inside a small house, he mimes a strangling. A local man, apparently terrified, gasps and flops about, then stops moving. The children scream. Anwar helps the smiling victim to his feet, and I breathe out after too many of my own airless moments, realizing it was only an act. The screams are happy screams. It’s a ghastly inversion of 1965, when entire families were murdered by roving death squads. Villages stood empty, until anti-Communist leaders annexed the homes of the dead.
Anwar speaks proudly of his killing days, equating gang leadership with freedom. Communists tried to restrict American film screenings and crack down on illegal enterprise; murdering them felt like justified revenge. Anwar is an honest patriot, and knows he has done his part to defend Indonesia from the cloudy threat of undesirable politics. He gives many speeches to paramilitary groups, who enlist thousands of young men in training exercises to fend off future Communist-like threats. Once, he is introduced as “the real Anwar Congo,” and they cheer him as fervently as we cheer peace activists (or, to be fair, killers like Henry Kissinger). He appears on talk shows to discuss his role in the “extermination” of traitors, which is a guaranteed applause line.
The film alternates between these roles for Anwar: cultural hero, or director of his own past violence. (Oppenheimer gave him free reign to film the reenactments). He seems to prefer the second. His style varies. At times, he dabbles in extreme realism: This angle of pull on a rope is best for snapping necks; wear jeans to a stabbing so blood won’t soak through; save the prettiest village girls for later abuse. (During these explanations, half a dozen audience members walked out, in a crowd of 100.)
More unsettling are his forays into surrealism. He pals around with Herman Koto, an overweight gangster friend—imagine Laurel and Hardy as mass murderers—whose acting preference involves dressing in drag and pretending to be raped. He shoots a music video in front of a waterfall, with a crowd of dancing girls. During the song’s bridge, one of Anwar’s victims thanks the killer for sending him to heaven. Anwar grins beatifically. He is backlit so as to suggest an angel, hovering safely over the rivers of blood in his past.
But one can escape one’s memories only by avoiding them, or by framing them to absolve oneself of blame. Anwar does neither. At first, the reenactments don’t seem to faze him. He cheerfully admits that much of his heroic image is fake:
”It’s easy to make the Communists look bad after we destroyed them. We were the cruel ones!”
But while the film’s gangsters use cameras to capture the mechanical ease and primal joy of murder, Anwar’s experience suggests that, with enough time to consider the act of killing, a typical human mind begins to revolt against the horror of ending human lives. I won’t say how he comes to realize the depths of his own evil, but I will say that he is no psychopath. By the closing scenes, we almost wish he were, not so he’d be free from suffering, but so we wouldn’t have to suffer watching him dissolve in a pool of acid guilt.
Something we say about movies: You have to see it to believe it! I’m not sure this is true of The Act of Killing. You may know enough history that nothing in this film will startle you. But if you believe in evil already, you might as well see it. I thought I believed, and that watching murderers discuss murder would be no more shocking than Schindler’s List or Apocalypse Now.
I was wrong. Every scene of the movie has been stamped into my soul. The same is true for Joshua Oppenheimer, who began to suffer nightmares alongside Anwar Congo, and whose entire worldview seems to have been set by the shooting of this film:
“The end goal of all culture is to stop these things from happening again.”
The documentary has been shown all over Indonesia, and is beginning to change the nation’s political culture, but those who made it still live in fear for their lives; most of their names have been left out of the credits. The Act of Killing is one step on a long road to salvation for the nation it examines, and for the species whose cruelty oozes from its every frame. Oppenheimer’s unblinking camera fails to forgive the unforgivable or explain the inexplicable. But if we are to accomplish either task, we will require art which presents humanity’s worst acts with absolute realism. This is one such work of art. I think it is required viewing for those who are still alive to see it.
THE ACT OF KILLING opened on Friday, July 19th in New York City.