director Joshua Oppenheimer
The Act of Killing is a tremendous film. Director Joshua Oppenheimer shot the film over a process and period of eight years, attempting to document first hand stories about events in Indonesia that began in the mid 1960′s an uprising that led to the Suharto government coming to power, ousting the Communists with financial and overall support of The West that resulted in the murders of 1 to 2.5 million people, mainly suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese. While his attempts to interview victims were challenged because the government that perpetrated these crimes is still in power, he found ready access to surviving perpetrators, only too happy to boast of the murders and the past, as they are national heroes to this day.
The immediate analogy that jumps to mind is to imagine if the Nazis had won WWII and stayed in power for 50-60 years after, how the members of the SS would be heralded as heroes, their crimes probably more tacitly understood, but considered to have been justified by their success and endurance.
Oppenheimer focuses the film on a few key perpetrators, men who were leaders of organized death squads, in particular Anwar Congo, still allied with the paramilitary organizations in the present day, heralded by the then Vice President of Indonesia. Congo himself is credited with up to 1000 murders by his own hands. And most bizarrely Oppenheimer gets Congo and other cronies to reenact their crimes for a film, in styles of their beloved Hollywood movies. They very willingly participate, dressing up, acting out events, playing various characters throughout, reliving murders, including a raid of a village that wiped out its entire populace.
It’s a very convoluted sort of approach but it’s one that makes amazing sense. These gangsters started as very low level criminals, running gambling and shakedowns but also hawking cinema tickets during the height of popularity of American movies in Indonesia. The then Communist government cracked down on American films, incensing these criminals, helping to politicize them by the opposition, which kicked off the blood-letting and immense brutality. These men modeled their behaviors and even some of their crimes on the Hollywood gangsters and images. These men were deeply inflected by cinema, so this strange caprice of having them act out their histories on film is something that appeals to their egos intensely.
The resultant film is a mixture of interviews, the process of making the reenactments, the reenactments themselves, even the watching of the reenactments. And in the depths of the process, moments of great truth play out against some strikingly surreal images and moments.
It’s utterly apropos that Hannah Arendt’s commentary about “the banality of evil” regarding the Nazis comes so swiftly to mind in hearing these old men retelling tales of torture, rape and murder with such blithe and blase attitude. To watch Congo with his grandchildren teaching them to be kind to ducklings, contrasted with his own brutality, even sharing with them the film scene in which he plays a character strangled with piano wire.
It’s Anwar Congo’s transformation through the film that resounds so deeply. At first, dancing the cha cha after bragging of the blood that once coated the floor of the building in which he killed, how he danced from the cinema across the street, like Elvis, to enact his violence, he by the end is reliving these events in the reenactments in a wholly different way. His own human trauma rises physically if not cognizantly within him.
The whole film is a return of the repressed. These stories, these truths, are not broadly known in Indonesia or much of the world. Though the government that committed these acts still is in power, fifty years later, the extent of the genocide is not well-known. Oppenheimer’s film seeks to bring this truth out to Indonesia and the world, but what is so fascinating is the return of this horror that plays out in the film and its power to effect and astound.
This is by and far one of the greatest documentaries that I’ve ever seen. It’s unique in its concept and approach and is so profoundly attuned to its subject matter. It’s not so didactic that you can get all of the knowledge of the past from the film directly. It plays out in its own internal search for truths, history, and information. It’s a great, great work of art as well. An amazing, amazing film that I cannot recommend enough. Utterly utterly amazing.