The Act of Killing is a remarkable and stomach churning documentary that allows several mass murders to tell the story of their crimes in their own words and through dramatic re-enactments. Following a US backed military coup that resulted in a decades long, right wing dictatorship, somewhere in the region of 500,000 to 2.5 million Indonesians and ethnic Chinese were killed at the hands of Government backed ‘gangsters’ and paramilitaries. Today, nearly half a century later there has been no apology for these heinous crimes and many of the murders are revered as heroes. This film focuses on several of the now ageing killers.
The film is unlike any documentary I’ve seen before. It avoids the bias that inevitably accompanies a documentary feature by allowing the perpetrators to give their own account, in their own words. The director and occasional questioner Joshua Oppenheimer avoids leading questions, instead asking the occasional question that’s on all our minds and allowing those interviewed to answer and elaborate if they feel necessary. Luckily for us the viewer, they often do. Another thing that makes this film stand out is that its ‘stars’ are given carte blanch to re-enact their evil deeds with a full camera crew, make-up, professional lighting and even prosthetics. It makes for chilling viewing.
What I find astonishing is the ease with which the gangsters talk about murder. Occasionally they boast, with signs of obvious pride and at other times they reminisce as though remembering old summers or ex-girlfriends. One man even boasts about killing every Chinese person he met in the street one day, including the father of his Chinese girlfriend. He’s unable to remember exactly how many but says “It must have been dozens” with glee. Very few of the men show any signs of remorse, let alone that the unforgivable acts have in any way scarred them mentally. They discuss the rape of young girls, with ear piercing lines such as “This will be hell for you but it will be like heaven for me” and give graphic descriptions of the various methods of execution. Throughout the camera never judges them. Oppenheimer leaves it up to the audience to decide how to feel about these men.
The re-enactments are staged in the street, in villages and in studios and we are given access to the deep discussion that goes into setting up a scene. The men debate the method of execution, what the condemned man might say, how he begs or what he might tell them to avoid his fate. Some of the most distressing scenes feature child ‘actors’ (usually just children from the street or young relatives) who are coerced into acting in scenes, begging for their parents lives. The visible heartache on their faces is deeply upsetting. We also get to see the murderers in their element, re-enacting killings that you know took place, showing off their speech and torture techniques. It’s one of the most shocking things I’ve ever witnessed. Alongside the horrific re-enactments are occasional flights of fancy and scenes of surrealism. These feel almost like breaks from the realism of the piece but catch you off guard as you become engrossed in the devastating revelations and descriptions.
Over the course of the film, one man comes to the foreground. Anwar Congo was a gangster who began selling black market cinema tickets but became a death squad leader who killed hundreds of men, if not more. He is the only man interviewed who shows any signs of regret. It takes time for this to develop in him and it provides the central arc of the film. Anwar opens the film strutting around a rooftop, delighting in a demonstration of a method of execution that produced less blood and smell than beating someone to death. Over the course of the film he tells of some of the murders that give him nightmares and discusses his mental anguish with former co-murderers.
Seeing this man finally suffer for the pain he caused so many gives the audience no satisfaction. Although it makes him more human than those who couldn’t care less about those they killed, he’s still a dreadful, despicable man. Because he looks frail and appears to come to terms with what he did, it’s easy to begin to feel sorry for him. This is both a strength and weakness of the film. You don’t want to feel anything for this horrid man but it’s difficult not to. It made me feel very uncomfortable.
Another thing that made me feel unsettled (aside from the obvious) is that the killers talk openly about how they were influenced by the movies. As someone who watches violent movies and plays violent video games while defending them for being so, I hated to hear that these people got some of their ideas from films. They mention the likes of Brando, Pacino and the Westerns of John Wayne as influences and gives those of us who argue that violence on screen doesn’t turn into violence in the street no option but to stand down. The men even dress as ‘Hollywood’ gangsters in their re-enactments, as a cross between James Cagney in White Heat and Al Pacino in Scarface.
The documentary features open and frank conversations with the gangsters but also speaks to Indonesian politicians and community leaders. A couple of Government ministers are filmed openly praising the work of the gangsters in eradicating Communism from the country and speak about how they are needed today as much as ever before. Whether they’re scared of the men or need them as a political allay, it’s still shocking to see elected men stand side-by-side with people who admit to killing hundreds. The film also gives an insight into the current corruption in the country, displaying that candidates pay voters and threaten them with violence. Every scene in this movie is an eye opener.
I have only one complaint to voice about the making of this incredible documentary and that is the lack of context in which it is placed. Because I knew so little about the events in explores, I would have liked some more background on them. I can see why this was left out though as it would break from the idea of letting those involved talk freely but alongside the lack of interaction with those caught on the other side of the brutality, the Communists, it's my only complaint about this tremendous film.
There are few words I can use to describe how upsetting The Act of Killing is. It made my insides ache and I noticed that my hand had crept up to my face where it stayed for an hour. Even though you seen very little in the way of violence and gore, the descriptions themselves are enough to chill you to the bone. The fact that these killings took place and that the men who did them are free, happy and revered is incredible. This is a film which has bought the eyes of the world to Indonesia and Indonesia should feel ashamed.