Act of Killing, The (2013)
Release Date: July 19th, 2013 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer Actors: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin, Ibrahim Sinik, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, Adi Zulkadry, Jusuf Kalla, Soaduon Siregar
t opens with a rather appropriate quote by Voltaire, suggesting that murder is a crime that warrants punishment – unless it’s done in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. And so, American director Joshua Oppenheimer approaches various government-sanctioned murderers to enlighten audiences about war, violence, and killing. This is based on acts from 1965, during which the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Any opposition to the newly installed dictatorship was accused of communism. In less than a year, over a million “communists” were murdered at the hands of paramilitaries and gangsters, aided by Western funding and weapons.
Not surprisingly, when the filmmakers met the killers, they proudly told their stories, as if completely oblivious to the horrific nature of their deeds and the impact it has had on Indonesian peoples to this day. Each warlord or executioner was asked to create scenes about their killings, in whatever manner they wished. One scene resembles a noirish interrogation, full of cigar smoke and lighting contrasts and wide-brimmed hats. Another reminds of a Vietnamese camp from a Rambo film. And another is something wholly fantastical – full of dancing girls, oversized sets, neon colors, and a fat man in drag.
The first two subjects are Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, reminiscing about the days of rampant killing – work that they were almost happy to do. They describe with stunning candor the ways in which they killed people, including methods that would generate the least amount of blood to have to clean up. They even admit that they’re haunted by nightmares about their slayings, though they speak of them with laughs, as if an annoyance because the victims just didn’t want to die quietly. Later, they discuss harsh interrogations, the arbitrary pronunciations of guilt, and the ease with which they could send people away to be slaughtered. From time to time in between the making of the mini-films, the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization, which played a major role in the ’65-’66 killings, is featured, revealing the current state of Indonesian government – generally appearing as corrupt, oppressive, and ruled with an iron fist.
At first, it’s almost comical, as the former executioners attempt to recruit random people from the streets to be actors and actresses in reenactments of a scene (specifically, the burning down of a house). They even translate “gangsters” as “free men.” But then it quickly becomes multi-layered in the realization that these participants watch the footage just shot of them pantomiming killing techniques, never querying their motives or their misdeeds; instead, they criticize a moment when they accidentally laugh, or the fact that Congo was wearing white pants during the shoot, which didn’t accurately reflect his dress back in the day. Back then, he wore dark colors, perhaps partly as intimidation but largely because blood would rapidly dirty light clothing. These men all approach the making of their individual skits as a historical account with which future generations can be educated. Yet the audience will surely see the irony of the judgments to be passed on these killers, who show no remorse, no regret, no concern, and no recognition of the gravity of genocide. Many of them just like films (Marlon Brando and John Wayne and gangster flicks are particular inspirations – but not Elvis Presley, because his films are too cheery).
What “The Act of Killing” demonstrates with chilling authenticity is that nobody thinks they’re the bad guys. Evil is a point of view. Even when these admitted killers hint at an acceptance of the horrors they committed, it’s never with true understanding; at one point, they claim their cruelties and the lies orchestrated in order to justify executing “communists.” Finding the right excuse necessary to stave off guilt is the solution for cold-blooded murder. As well as delusion. And denial.
Perspective is everything. They’re ultimately the targets of a scathing expose, but they’re totally blind as to the way eventual viewers will interpret the material. It’s shocking, eye-opening, gut-wrenching, hysterical, and almost inexplicably profound. Even if the proficiency of the structuring, pacing, and other technical merits of the film are debatable, the subject matter is tremendously potent and the visuals staggering in their exposure of horrifying truths, hypocrisy, and a thin line between acting and reality for the very real victims. At times, what Oppenheimer unveils is simply unbelievable.
– Mike Massie