The history of documentary filmmaking is filled with examples of directors exploring the nature of evil in regards to genocide, but few have done so with the strange combination of artiness and directness of Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE ACT OF KILLING.
When I first heard about the film’s central premise—to offer a few of the more prominent perpetrators of Indonesia’s state-sanctioned (and Western government-funded) purges of communists in the mid-1960s (“communists” oftentimes serving merely as a catch-all term for anyone targeted by the government, including, for example, the ethnic Chinese) a chance to re-enact the nature of their killings in any setting of their choosing—I have to admit that I cringed a bit. Oh god, I thought: another documentary about atrocities in the third world told from an aristocratic, first world perspective. What to make of a film which gives power—any amount of it—to former death squad members?
In spite of my initial reservations and queasiness, I found myself mesmerized: The Act of Killing delivers fully on its promise and even paves interesting new terrain, occupying a hypnotizing bit of cinematic real estate somewhere near the intersection of the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s infamous “authority” experiments, Barbet Schroeder’s GENERAL IDI AMIN: A SELF-PORTRAIT, and Errol Morris’ THE THIN BLUE LINE and his witheringly sophisticated interrogation/conversation with Robert McNamara, THE FOG OF WAR.
The protagonist of The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo, a man who was considered the most feared executioner in north Sumatra during the purges, and who is today revered as a sort of national hero, especially by the paramilitary group Pancasila, which plays a large hand in Indonesian politics. Throughout the film it is mentioned on a few occasions that Congo was alone responsible for killing 1,000 people. Two other main characters are Herman Koto, a younger Panacasila paramilitary leader who seems to be a friend and neighbor of Congo’s, and Adi Zulkadry, a fellow executioner of Congo’s from the 60’s. There are numerous other characters, as well, like Soaduon Siregar, a low-level journalist at the time of the death squads who today survives as a sort of servile and withered Brutus, refusing to admit that he ever saw or knew anything.
Congo and other members of the death squads, it turns out, were heavily recruited from the ranks of the “movie theater gangsters,” or toughs who made their living by selling scalped movie tickets to overcrowded screenings of American films. This connection to films—especially American ones—is important, as the swagger of freewheeling gangster-ism indelibly shaped the character of Congo and others involved in the executions, which has flowed into the political rhetoric of the present. That very mythology—at the urging of Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing—is finally given its, fittingly, cinematic shape.
The scenes created by the film’s subjects are hard to characterize for one who has not seen it: Some are hopelessly stiff, ponderous evocations of genre, usually war, gangster-ism, and other tough-guy antics, with even a nod to the bucolic Western. One sequence—the recreation of the burning of a village—pulses with a frightening level of naturalism while others are baroque slices of phantasmagoria, oftentimes filled with garish musical numbers and even dancing girls, seemingly designed with the same sensibility that gave birth to the velvet Elvis painting and the lawn ornament. One wonders if the perpetrators of such grotesqueries should not also be prosecuted for unnecessary camp along with war crimes, but the sequences, regardless of their artistic merits, or lack thereof, resoundingly succeed in another respect. Yes, The Act of Killing is strangely and vibrantly alive, cinematic and surreal, in a way which few films of its type ever are, the majority tending towards heavy verbosity over image, stultifying and somber atmosphere over space.
Not that The Act of Killing is fun and games. On the contrary, as the film progresses one senses that the camera, a sort of silent Socratic interrogator, has begun to wear down its protagonist, Congo. In scene after scene we see him at work on his movie and even viewing his efforts, Jean Rouch-style (see CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER in Hot Docs!), and commenting upon them for the camera. In all cases, Oppenheimer’s MO seems to be to just keep the camera running: what insights there are appear out of sheer patience, and the director seems to have had the time and money sufficient to wait.
In fact, so bracingly candid are the subjects of The Act of Killing that one is reminded what it is like to live in a land unused to having its every movement and statement recorded and transmitted via the internet and social media. For example, the leader of the Pancasila paramilitary group, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, seems defiantly unwilling to adapt to the presence of Oppenheimer’s camera: except when he is smiling for the sake of the public just about every word out of his mouth is some jaw-droppingly lewd or profane comment, usually about women (this in a predominantly Muslim country, no less). But if the statements and actions of the film’s central bullies seem cartoonishly ham-fisted and bullheaded to the extreme, then the flipside to this situation is represented in the end credits, where crew member after crew member is listed as “Anonymous,” a chilling reminder of the very real dangers these courageous Indonesian filmmakers faced in standing up to their tormentors.
As a believer in the less-is-more school of editing, I watched the two-hour theatrical version of the film but the DVD also comes packaged with a “director’s cut,” which runs about 45 minutes longer, and a number of other interesting extras. Oppenheimer succeeds remarkably in his stated intention, and with the damning revelations of The Act of Killing there may be some hope for change for the better in Indonesia’s embattled future. The word “important” tends to be an overused one in film criticism but this seminal piece of agitprop more than deserves it, a sustained and unnerving meditation on despotic acts which takes the daring gamble of making the audience privy to the despot’s febrile imagination.