Fairly early on in the festival I saw a tweet from someone proclaiming this movie to be the absolute must-see of all – “Do anything you can to get tickets!”. That is some pretty high praise, and so I was grateful that I already had snagged mine. When I was making my schedule I was fixated on seeing a movie for every day of the festival, and realized that I was missing something on the last day, the 16th. I went through that day’s scheduled options and The Act Of Killing caught my eye. Billy loves documentaries, and it seemed to offer a nice overlap between our interests (mine: pop culture and cinema. his: history and politics). Little did we know that we would sit down for one of the most engaging movies I’ve ever seen.
The one thing that typically turns me off of documentaries is the insistence of the director to put themselves into the story. I can understand how it’s hard to resist the impulse. But I prefer documentaries to present the subject matter in as objective a fashion as possible, to let the audience decide on their reaction. Michael Moore makes it work because you go in wanting a Michael Moore Story. But with something as complex as the political climate in Indonesia, to point the camera at yourself and tell us why Things Are Bad does a disservice to the story waiting to be told. And so it was with great relief that I sat through the entirety of The Act of Killing only hearing director Joshua Oppenheimer’s voice a handful of times.
Instead Oppenheimer presents us with what in some ways feels like a long video confessional. The story is about these Indonesian men, and they are who we follow and hear from. He has managed to personally connect with former members of the Indonesian execution squads and brought out from them matter of fact and very earnest descriptions of (and rationalizations for) the horrific murders they performed during the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66. Recruited while they were young and brash gang members, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were recruited to murder the local ethnic Chinese. They had grown up as pop-culture junkies, fond of pulp fare and gangster exploitation films, and styled themselves after their action heroes. It was with this thin self-delusion that Anwar personally performed at least 1000 such murders. And it is this sense of personal mythology that Oppenheimer brings to the screen by asking these now elderly men to re-enact some of their most memorable murders in the cinematic style that they always saw in their heads.
It is difficult to watch of course, as you are torn between laughing of the absurdity of the skits they script for themselves, and the horror of the history that they portray. Anwar’s go-to move was to strangle people with wire in a sort of assembly-line garroting station. He shows us the very rooftop and wire which were his tools, all the while talking about these events as though describing the building of a new house. Later he is costumed as a young gangster once more (hair even tinted black for realism) and he acts as the murdered party. He is tied and strung with a wire and endures only a few moments of this fictional death before panic overwhelms him and they are forced to stop. It is later, when watching the footage, that Anwar claims that in the moment he understood the plight of his victims, felt their terror and pain, and you sense a moment of true regret break through his decades of repression. But Oppenheimer chooses that single moment to let himself be heard by the audience and remind Anwar that he can’t truly know what they felt because he was able to call it off. A very powerful moment, pulled off with precision.
The other scenarios are a bit more fanciful, with swaying dancers and representations of gods and the afterlife, but they are no less chilling in comparison to the violent memories they are meant to evoke. They visit a village that was once burned down during those terrible times, and a military official reminisces about it. He then burns down a recreation of the village, while the inhabitants look on, in a display of powerful dominance, amazing self-deception, and a grotesque lack of empathy.
Oppenheimer has done a bold and dangerous thing by penetrating Indonesia’s military culture and history. The men who shared their remembrances with him do not see themselves as war criminals, but rather men who performed the job at hand. Some people have reacted poorly to what they see as an attempt to humanize them for sympathy. But The Act of Killing shows if anything that a man can think of himself as a good man and yet do great evil. To declare that we should not know these men for their hopes and fears, that they should be known only as monsters is a rather simplistic view of the world. It is a complex issue and one that is ongoing. Some members of the audience were enraged that Oppenheimer has not brought this footage to authorities, to demand the men be brought to trial for their crimes. Again, a rather simplistic view of a simple filmmaker’s options. The producer who spoke with us after the show said that Oppenheimer is currently filming essentially a sequel about the survivors called Coexistence, which could only be possible if the true message behind The Act of Killing remains a secret to the Indonesian military. While I hope that The Act Of Killing gets wide release and plenty of attention I also hope that Oppenheimer is kept safe. He’s walking with lions, and while they may be old this film has shown that they will still bite if threatened.