I’ve been hearing a lot of positive buzz about Joshua Oppenheimer’s provocative documentary The Act of Killing for months, and now that I’ve finally gotten a chance to see it, I gotta say… the critical excitement about this movie is right on the money. A typical recounting of the premise goes something like this: Oppenheimer asks several men about events from nearly half a century ago, when they carried out a literal genocide in Indonesia that left more than half a million dead. Yet he does more than ask questions, opting instead to have the men re-enact the grisly scenes and in the process leading them (or at least some of them) to connect with the reality of their actions in a far more human way than they’ve done before.
Yet who cares whether a serial murderer has feelings about what he’s done, right? Right! That’s exactly the response the movie produces in viewers – this uncertainty about the moral implications of the movie’s very existence, not to mention the constant sense of unease as Oppenheimer and crew are filming about terrible killings in a country that still considers the killers heroes. There’s more than one scene where government officials put on the black-and-orange jumpsuits of the Pancasila, a group of thugs some three million strong, and declare on-stage both that the group is definitely not gangsters, but that actually the word “gangster” originally meant “free men”, so it’s a good thing that there are so many gangsters in Indonesia. That nail-biting tension is present throughout most of the film, reminding the audience of the past horror even as the great majority of the movie is less about the creation of the film-within-a-film than it is about simply listening to the men rationalize their past behaviors.
The center of the film is Anwar Congo, who personally killed over one thousand human beings, many by tying a length of wire around their necks and pulling it until they were suffocated (a method less bloody than his initial practice of just beating them to death). At the start of the film, he happily shows the director how exactly this was carried out in a colorful outfit he later says makes him look like he’s about to go golfing. But, in fact, there is a scene where one of the killers goes golfing – setting up his drive while casually telling Oppenheimer about how they exterminated the “communists” (rather, anybody who had the misfortune of being accused). This is an example of the weird sense of dark irony at play throughout the movie, something that makes The Act of Killing sometimes come across as unbelievable. Take, for instance, a moment where Herman Koto (Congo’s right-hand man) is preparing to run for election in hopes of being able to more efficiently blackmail people into giving him money. He practices gesticulating in a mirror, loosely basing his actions off of those of President Obama, who unbeknownst(?) to Herman is saying that the U.S. will not abide by the actions of the enemies of freedom. Another, even more brutally ironic moment comes when one of the killers arrives by plane and appears wearing a t-shirt that bears the word “apathetic”. Are you actually– is this really real?
The line between reality and fabrication is an uncertain one here, a fact that extends far beyond the conceit of the false-movie at the center of the documentary. When Herman and his thugs come around to demand money from shopkeepers, the men pretend to be graciously donating funds. When a massive political rally is being held, with hundreds dancing and applauding, we hear in voice-over that nobody comes to these rallies except by being paid off – though they look happy, they bear no allegiance to any of the political parties beyond what “bonus” they can get from them. A journalist who worked just downstairs from the site of many of the killings swears up and down that he had no knowledge of the cruelty (sadism?), despite the fact that it was an “open secret” that everybody in the area was aware of–no doubt he fears what his fate might be if he says otherwise. And then, most chilling and wrenching of them all, there’s a scene where a Chinese extra suggests adding a scene to the movie-within-the-movie based on an experience from his own life. Interjecting laughter and repeatedly saying “I’m not criticizing what you’re doing”, he tells of when his step-father was taken at 3 AM and murdered, left lying under a barrel and ultimately buried in the yard like a goat.
The killers, hearing the story, worry that it would take too many days to shoot that scene. “Maybe the actors can use it for inspiration,” they suggest.
And then, again, there’s the emotional resonance of Congo and his ilk’s reaction to their past. It’s hard not to be moved when Congo recognizes, perhaps for the first time, the way that his victims might have felt (“Actually, they felt far worse,” Oppenheimer brazenly asserts). The varying reactions one experiences simultaneously in this moment are incredible: some undeniable measure of empathy for Congo’s unspoken regret, a retained sense of justifiable derision for the monster, the helplessness of not knowing what could possibly make up for his crimes. Perhaps his being haunted by the lifeless eyes of his victims is the best we can ask for. Meanwhile, his compatriots make excuses: it was an exchange for just compensation, the Americans are not on trial for exterminating the Indians, the “Geneva Conventions” are but a temporarily agreed upon order of morality which is subjective and open to change, the pangs of guilt you feel for butchering your fellow countrymen are but a nerve problem that can be corrected with vitamins. When they’re not making excuses, they’re happily recounting the grisly details of their murdering spree. Yet it’s clear that the impact of their actions weigh on their minds nonetheless in the way that they are acutely aware of the image the film is going to paint of them – worse than the Communists, blood-thirsty, terrorists.
But then again, it’s only several members of the film crew who are listed as “Anonymous” in the closing credits (out of fear of retaliation), whereas none of the subjects of the film has any reason to hide his identity. Expecting that the movie will play world-wide, recounting their actions with honesty and in detail, they express no concern about what consequences could come from this divulgence. Maybe they’ve just lived without consequences for such a long time that they’re not even cognizant that there is such a thing, I don’t know. For the majority of the group, any nagging at their conscience can be tamped down or ignored. Thus, the movie serves as an unparalleled glimpse into the psyche of… of what? of evil? of inhumanity? of self-delusion? Whatever it is, it’s unquestionably powerful stuff.