Review: The Act of Killing (2013)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary quite like The Act of Killing and I believe most filmgoers haven’t either. It’s a tale of gruesome acts of hatred, of genocide, and of a nation’s still fresh history of violence. It’s also a tale of swagger and morbid humour and men who have created larger-than-life personas for themselves in order to mask the horrors of their past. The double-edged sword of The Act of Killing that makes it equal parts disturbing and fascinating is that it is a tale of genocide told by the men who committed it.

In 1965, Indonesia experienced a military coup. The newly established military dictatorship proceeded to eliminate the nation’s communists and ethnic Chinese, carrying out the killings through gangsters and right-wing paramilitary groups. The men who committed these crimes were never prosecuted. There were no public inquires and reconciliations processes. The powers that instigated the genocide are still largely in control of the nation. History is written by the winners, and in Indonesia, the killers won.

Instead of making a talking heads doc, complete with stock footage of the genocidal killings, survivors’ tales and, most condescendingly, modern academics telling us the meaning being all this monstrosity, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer lets the genocidal gangsters tell the story for themselves. He offers the gangsters the chance to make a film recreating their genocidal killings. They can frame it however they wish. Many of the gangsters are film buffs, and some of their recreations are flavoured with the style of Hollywood tough-guy cinema.

Chief among these killers is Anwar Congo, who led a death squad of dapper gangsters and was personally responsible for killing around a thousand enemies of the state. Anwar, now in his 60s and looking more the slick old gent than the monstrous killer, speaks of his crimes with pride. He and his associates, including the frog-like Herman, a portly leader of a paramilitary group (who bizarrely dresses up in Divine-esque drag during the film’s musical sequences), and fellow-killer Adi Zulkadry, celebrate the killings and speak openly of their tactics for committing murder. They see the film as a way to immortalize their rise to power, and as Adi often reminds Anwar, demonstrate the cruelty of their past actions.

In one of the film’s most troubling moments of confession, Adi speaks candidly to Oppenheimer about his lack of remorse and his contempt for foreign moralizing. When Oppenheimer asks Adi what he would do if he were taken to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity, Adi merely laughs the notion off, saying what he did cannot be forced into any narrow notions of right and wrong. He mentions Guantanamo Bay and the Bush administration’s justification of inhumane actions during the War on Terror. He says he has no illusions about the cruelty of his past actions and the falseness of the lies that were told about the communists, but that he has no interest in notions of historical right and wrong. History is written by the winners, he reminds Oppenheimer. Who knows whom the winners will be in the future?

It’s only late in The Act of Killing that we see anything like remorse from Anwar and his associates. After personally stepping into the role of a communist victim during a late scene in the film and experiencing the intimidation and violence of the recreation, Anwar sits in his living room and watches the footage play on his TV. Initially impressed with his own performance and the stylishness of the footage — he calls his grandchildren in to watch the scene where “Grandpa gets executed” — Anwar’s face betrays his disgust. He sits in silence watching the footage of himself, and muses that he thinks he is beginning to understand what his victims must have been going through before he killed them. Oppenheimer takes this opportunity to press the realization, and it floors Anwar. In the final scene in the film, Anwar returns to a killing ground from earlier; as he tries to boast about his actions, as he did previously, his body seems to physically reject the lies, the swagger, the violence, the entire persona he has spent his life building up. The ghosts are too much to handle. The conscience of this killer lies bare before the camera.

There is something profoundly human about these men like Anwar. Calling them monsters gives far too little credit to humanity’s capacity for evil. Many people comment upon the banality of evil as evidenced in events like the Indonesian genocide. The Act of Killing shows us that not only is evil banal, but that evil has a human face, and it is pitiful.

9 out of 10 (U.K./Denmark, 2013)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer; co-directed by Anonymous and Christine Cynn; featuring Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, and Ibrahim Sinik.