Film Review: The Act of Killing

Remarkably complex documentary about Indonesian genocide has the unrepentant, unpunished perpetrators make a movie about what they did in 1965.

To watch The Act of Killing is to struggle for context. The story is right in front of you, but it’s hard to actually believe that it’s true. Aging Indonesian men brag about their days killing communists, showing how they interrogated suspected dissidents and strangled them with pieces of wire, in the style of American gangster movies. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer takes their disturbing boasts to a new level, asking them to reenact what happened in a movie, which they will act in and direct. The result is mesmerizing. As an audience, we view the process in abject horror, yet the men’s filmmaking offers tantalizing clues that help make sense of these people who seem untouched by their participation in these mass murders. Oppenheimer doesn’t force one perspective, but offers viewers multiple threads to follow. It’s up to them to choose which ones to tie together.

History, as one of the men points out, is written by the victors. In 1965, the Indonesian military took over the government, and tasked paramilitary forces such as the Pancasila Youth with killing over one million communists, ethnic Chinese, and other dissidents considered to be against the regime. Many of the men Oppenheimer films refer to themselves as gangsters, and idolize the swagger of American movie criminals. The Indonesian word for gangster actually means “free man,” a semantic distinction that these men frequently point out in justifying their actions. None of those who murdered were ever punished. At one point, Anwar Congo, one of the most famous of these gangsters, goes on a talk show to discuss the movie he is making. The smiling host talks about how he developed a “humane” method of killing, as a crowd of youth in the uniforms of the leading paramilitary group cheer him on. Meanwhile, in the control room, young professionals gossip about Congo and others like him. “They all went crazy. Or they’re really rich,” they say of the men.

Congo appears to be neither crazy nor rich, at least compared to the wealth some of his old friends display. Throughout the documentary, he complains of being unable to sleep, haunted by the wide-open eyes of a man he once beheaded. Yet, like the other men, he speaks of his actions with detachment, humor or pride. The key to unlocking his emotions may be the filmmaking process. Most of the time, Congo’s lackadaisical descriptions of what happened are chilling. But as Congo plays a man being interrogated, he has a hard time even finishing his scene. Could it be that the movie is forcing him to break through his denial and feel empathy with his many victims?

The act of planning and reenacting these atrocities leads to poignant ironies. A child sobs long after a scene wraps of villagers being attacked by the paramilitary. “You’re embarrassing me,” says one of the men as his child remains inconsolable. In the same scene, a woman becomes faint, and the gangsters attempt to revive her. It’s an odd act, comforting actors who are playing the very villagers that were killed, not consoled.

A neighbor of Congo’s plays a man being interrogated in another scene. Before it begins, he haltingly tells the story about how his Chinese stepfather was dragged out in the middle of the night and killed. When his body turned up, he had to bury his stepfather “like a goat” in an unmarked space because the neighbors were too fearful to help. The gangsters—the perpetrators—listen to him talk, and then dismiss him. “That story is too long to put in the movie,” they say. “But maybe the actors can use it for motivation.” When the camera rolls, and the man is questioned—reenacting what likely happened to his stepfather—tears and snot flow effusively down his face. It’s clear that this outpouring is connected to the emotional trauma from decades before.

The Act of Killing also hints at how violence is transmitted across generations. Congo frequently encourages his young grandsons to watch the violent footage, bragging to them about his performance. As they tend to animals in their backyard, he tells one of his grandsons to pat the duck with a lame leg and tell the animal that he hurt his leg by accident. The meaning is tantalizingly unclear. Did the boy actually hurt the animal on purpose? And if so, what does the “by accident” excuse say about Congo and his grandson?

The executive producers on The Act of Killing include Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the documentary greats. Oppenheimer’s bold movie reinvents the genre, much the way that Morris’ use of reenactments in The Thin Blue Line redefined what it meant to be a documentary. The process of filmmaking opens a Pandora’s Box, deconstructing the men’s stories and beliefs. By showing both the filmmaking process and the finished footage, Oppenheimer wrests control of the narrative from the men, exposing its gaps and contradictions.

Originally, Oppenheimer planned to make a conventional documentary focused on the victims. But after being followed, it proved easier to film the perpetrators, who are feared and respected. Still, Oppenheimer’s co-director remains anonymous, and the credits are filled with gaffers and cameramen listed only as “Anonymous.” Politically daring and a haunting look at people who committed horrific acts, The Act of Killing will be a model of formal innovation in the years to come.