Some tragedies are so horrific that it’s hard to reconcile one’s belief in the basic decency of human beings with the atrocities that some of them have perpetrated. Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though: They’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.
Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit. In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance, in part because they grew up on gangster films. (Before being recruited by the military, which had overthrown the country’s government, people like Congo worked as black-market movie theater ticket sellers.) And so Congo and his goons, now all rich and middle-aged, play dress-up for parts of The Act of Killing, casting themselves as heroes torturing their communist foes.
As an opening crawl indicates, Indonesia’s military labeled anyone who opposed its rule as communists as a way to tar its enemies and justify its genocidal plans. The Act of Killing illustrates that, more than 45 years later, the country is still far from acknowledging its previous barbarism: Local TV stations breathlessly interview Congo about his film project, the cheerful hostess reminding the at-home viewer that Indonesia is better off without those godless communists around. The extent of the intimidation is such that one of Oppenheimer’s two co-directors is billed simply as “Anonymous,” and indeed several of the crew members receive the same moniker out of fear for their lives.
The Act of Killing utilizes a deadpan style to illuminate the surrealism of its subject matter. Beloved in his homeland, Congo carries himself like a kindly grandfather, warmly telling stories about the people he murdered and the best ways to kill someone. (It involves a wire around the neck, which he’ll be happy to demonstrate for you.) He reunites with some of his old henchmen for this project, and the smiles, hugs and laughs prevalent among the gang would make you think it’s a festive occasion, not the meeting of callous, evil minds. Subtly, Oppenheimer puts The Act of Killing together like a nightmare twist on nostalgic documentaries like The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time in which a group of grizzled fogeys reminisce about the good old days. And why shouldn’t Congo and his cohorts feel positively sunny? As one of his associates explains, there’s no need to be afraid of human rights violations when “War crimes are defined by the winners.”
Oppenheimer’s film is all the more maddening because it coolly documents an environment in which these thugs’ attitude isn’t just tolerated but supported. Another of Congo’s men, Herman Koto, runs for public office because he knows if he wins, he can shake down locals for bribes. The ethnic Chinese (a minority group in Indonesia) have to pay stipends to paramilitary groups or risk having their shops attacked. As Oppenheimer and his co-directors follow Congo and others, you get an overwhelming sense that not only are these men undisturbed by their actions, they feel entitled to do what they do. As far as they’re concerned, participating in re-created scenes dramatizing their old murders is just another way of validating their own warped view of justice and valor. (Astoundingly, one of Congo’s henchmen tries to reassure an actor that he shouldn’t let the violence in a re-created scene bother him. After all, it’s just a movie—even though it’s based on an actual murder.)
By trying to refrain from editorializing, Oppenheimer wants his subjects’ blatant wickedness to indict itself, and it’s a smart move. Unfortunately, he can sometimes let the pokerfaced absurdity become repetitious, settling for a few too many still-life shots of his subjects doing seemingly “ordinary” things (like bowling) to underline how their mundane outer appearance is in such contrast to their wretched past acts. But those quibbles shouldn’t take away from the film’s distressingly grim impact. And it does nothing to temper an unexpected arc that occurs within Congo, which will perhaps help some viewers believe again in the basic decency of human beings. But it won’t wipe away the horror of what they’ve watched over the last two hours.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Starring: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Sakhyan Asmara, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, Syamsul Arifin
Release Date: July 19, 2013