A film like “The Act of Killing” is almost indescribable. It is strikingly unique and it certainly can’t be labeled or put in a box. Director Joshua Oppenheimer calls his film a “documentary of the imagination”. It’s bizarre, unsettling, and at times impossible to comprehend. It’s horrifying, repulsive, and unflinching in its focus. It’s an overused statement but “The Act of Killing” is unlike anything you have seen before and digesting what we are fed isn’t all that easy.
To understand this documentary you must first look back to 1965 in North Sumatra, Indonesia. A splinter group’s failed coup d’état led to a military takeover of the government. The new leadership blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and soon sanctioned the wholesale massacre of communists across the region. But the killings weren’t restricted to alleged communists. There were also brutal mass murders rooted in racism and religion. It is said the killings have been overlooked in most Indonesian history books and by the international community, yet a CIA report called them “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.
With that historical backdrop in place, the film spotlights some of the authors of the murders and we are told of their atrocities from the men themselves. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry went from movie theater ticket scalpers to heads of military death squads responsible for thousands of brutal killings in 1965 and 1966. Even more appalling, they have never been punished or even found guilty of any crime. In many ways they are celebrated among the ignorant or sympathetic. These are the men we spend two hours with in “The Act of Killing”. Their words, their candor, their lack of remorse, their impunity. These men openly discuss their parts in the anti-communist purge in uncomfortable detail and often with smiles on their faces.
These men also have an unusual infatuation with western cinema which finds its way into the movie on several occasions. They constantly refer to themselves as ‘gangsters’, a term stemming from their love of American gangster movies. But it also seems that some of their real-life killings were patterned after these films. Anwar especially seems to treat the title of gangster as a badge of honor.
But their love for movies also plays into the stories they tell. Throughout the documentary we listen in on pointed and detailed recollections of some purely evil murders. But these men also tell their stories through dramatic reenactments for the cameras intended to glorify their atrocities. Their scenes borrow from their favorite mob movies, westerns, and musicals. It’s these uneasy sequences of boastful self-aggrandizement that reveal the true evil dwelling within these people. As we get deeper into the movie the reenactments become more bizarre and surreal possibly a result of Anwar’s desire to squash any feeling of guilt that may be surfacing.
It took Joshua Oppenheimer over five years to make “The Act of Killing” and during that time he accumulated 1200 hours of footage. The result is a potent exposé that unveils one of the darker secrets of our world. I knew nothing of this horror which made the film all the more enlightening and disturbing. At times I did feel disconnected from the more absurd and unintelligible mini-productions from Anwar and company. But there are far more times where I sat in silent shock due to what I was watching. This is audacious filmmaking and there are several scenes carved into my memories. I would be surprised if others didn’t have that same experience.