This review contains spoilers.
I had been meaning to watch this documentary for a while, but was a bit intimidated by its length and subject matter. I was finally persuaded to commit to it by John Safran and Father Bob Maguire’s interview with the director Joshua Oppenheimer on Sunday Night Safran. The Act of Killing is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. My boyfriend and I sat through ninety percent of it in utter disbelief, and the remaining ten percent trying to understand what we were seeing. The length of this post is in part the result of me trying to figure out what was going on in this film.
After Suharto took power in Indonesia in 1966 an anti-communist purge took place. During this time, ‘death squads’ massacred between 300,000 and one million people. According to Oppenheimer on Sunday Night Safran, he originally set out to interview the survivors of the death squads – the children of those who were murdered. But when the government heard that survivors were talking they weren’t too pleased, the survivors got scared, and the interviews stopped. But the survivors pointed Oppenheimer in the direction of members of the death squads that were still living among them. Go and ask them, they said. Oppenheimer did, expecting the killers to be reluctant to talk about their crimes. What happened was completely and startlingly and sickeningly the opposite. Not only were the death squad leaders happy to relate what they had done, they were eager to. So eager, in fact, that with very little encouragement they agreed to re-enact their killings for a film. And not just a straight-out documentary, but a film complete with costumes, music, spectacular scenery, colourful dancing girls, and 1920s style American gangster hats.
Anwar Congo is the star of the film. As a death squad leader, people were terrified of Congo. He would kill while laughing, he tells Oppenheimer, after dancing out of the cinema across the street. He started out as a scalper at the local cinema, where he loved to hang out. He and other death squad leaders – including the fat and bumbling Herman – all seem to have a weird fascination, bordering on obsession, with American cinema. They love Elvis, and movies with singing and dancing. Anwar Congo remembers leaving the cinema and dancing and laughing all the way across the street to his torture office, where he would stab people. For one of the re-enactment scenes Anwar and others choose from a pile of American-style gangster hats. For another they are dressed as cowboys, Anwar in a striking red shirt. Don’t you think I look good in my red shirt, Anwar says, I am the star, I am an artist. He sits atop a horse and swings a lasso above his head. There are also scenes that are closer to Southeast Asian film culture (at least they are similar to my experiences with Cambodian films), including a scene where Anwar has been beheaded, and Herman (dressed as a very feminine sort of spirit) is eating his liver. Equally bizarre are the scenes where a row of colourfully dressed girls emerges from the mouth of a giant fish to dance in front of lush scenery.
The Act of Killing is a surreal, terrifying, unbelievable film. When the death squad leaders remember the killings they laugh about them. One of the most uncomfortable moments for me came from a man listed as Anwar’s neighbour (not a death squad leader). I’ve got a story for your film, he says, as they sit on set during a cigarette break. The man tells Anwar how, when he was only 12 years old, death squads came and took away his step-father. He heard him scream for help, and then silence. Later on they found his body underneath half an oil drum, and the 12-year-old and his grandfather dragged the body away themselves. He says all of this through laughter, and Anwar and his cronies also laugh as they hear it. At the end Anwar’s neighbour repeats: I’m not telling you this to criticize, I’m telling you for the story. But it is too complicated, Anwar says, we can’t use it. Alright, he says. Later, as the leaders are discussing what they have done and worrying that the film might show them in a negative light (really? You think?!), the camera focuses in on this man – Anwar’s neighbour. We see his face wincing, contorted, full of pain and trying to hold it in. During the re-enactment, too, he is almost too convincing in his portrayal of the victim. He sobs, snot runs from his nose, he shakes. It is too real.
Anwar does seem to feel some guilt. He has nightmares, and he believes in karma. It is confusing, trying to understand how he can talk about these crimes. My boyfriend suggests that perhaps it is a kind of catharsis, to go back and live through the murders in this way; to re-imagine them as movies. Maybe it is a way of trying to make them less real? Or perhaps it is Anwar’s way of trying to atone. In one of the last scenes Anwar himself plays a victim, and is strangled. He says to Oppenheimer, after viewing himself in this scene, I really felt what they must have felt. I really felt it. Oppenheimer points out that he didn’t really, because he knew it was only a film, whereas the people he killed knew they were going to die. Anwar comes close to tears then, for the first time. Is it coming back to me, Joshua? He asks. I don’t want it to.
Perhaps he does not feel guilty – maybe what he feels instead is fear that his lack of guilt will affect his karma in the next life. Perhaps he is worried about the fact that he can’t feel empathy for the people he has killed. I wonder if he is a sociopath – if they all are. Or are they kids that have just never grown up? Oppenheimer is led through the opulent mansions of some of the death squad leaders. They show him endangered stuffed animals, and rare pieces of crystal (limited, limited, very limited). They are like teenagers, almost, with too much money and power.
Oppenheimer said on Sunday Night Safran that the perhaps reason these leaders were so eager to portray their killings was as a way of insisting to themselves that what they did was right (even if deep down they don’t believe it was). But I’m not sure I agree with him. I’m not sure these men feel guilty, even deep down. If that were the case surely they would have been driven mad by it by now. But maybe that’s it. Maybe they are mad. Either before the killings, or after, but they are in some way certainly crazy.
The Act of Killing is over two hours long, and a difficult and bewildering watch. But it is a totally unique documentary, and well worth the time.
The Act of Killing, released in 2012, was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, and Christine Cynn.