Universally praised since its release in 2012 (it was named film of the year for 2013 by both Sight And Sound and The Guardian), Joshua Oppenheimer’s riveting and disturbing documentary The Act Of Killing is one of the most unusual releases I have seen in some time. Oppenheimer, an American filmmaker based in Copenhagen, gained the trust of several Indonesian politicians and gangsters (and some who you’d describe as having a foot in both camps) who were directly involved in the country’s purge of 1965-66, ostensibly an anti-communism drive that resulted in the extortion and killing of more than half a million people.
The main subjects here are Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, two men who were both small-time gangsters when Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s first President Sukarto in 1965 in the wake of a failed coup. Congo ran a successful black market movie racket at the time, but was promoted by Suharto when he gained control of the country, and subsequently led North Sumatra’s most powerful death squad. It’s suggested that he is personally responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people, mostly by strangulation with wire. And yet here is, on-screen, in the exact place where the killings were carried out, dancing a little jig and extolling the virtues of a little marijuana, a little alcohol, a little ecstasy, all of which helps him to carry on with life as if nothing had happened.
At Oppenheimer’s invitation, Congo and Koto re-enact their involvement in this brutal history, staging increasingly bizarre recreations of the genocide which they themselves appear in and film, all filtered through the styles of their own favourite movie genres: gangster films, westerns, musicals and more. The suggestion that they do this may be both sensational and ridiculous but it appeals to the vanity of these arrogant, unrepentant killers, as well as their own love of the movies. Given a budget and creative freedom, Congo, Koto, their friends and neighbours begin by dramatising torture sequences before their delusions of artistry get the better of them; by the end of The Act Of Killing they’re indulging in a quite staggering musical rendition of ‘Born Free’ under a waterfall with a bunch of dancers who have walked out of the mouth of a giant fish. The victims appear at the bottom of the waterfall before thanking their killers for sending them to heaven. If that wasn’t surreal and ludicrous enough in itself, the despicable Koto – who we see extorting money from Chinese businessmen and setting out his corrupt money-making plans if elected onto a building committee during the documentary – is dressed in drag.
It’s difficult not to laugh at their garish and heavy-handed attempts at filmmaking, though any amusement resulting from Congo and Koto’s strange efforts is quickly tempered by the contemplation of their proficiency at cold-blooded murder. For much of Oppenheimer’s film few of those involved in these large-scale organised killings show any sign of remorse; only one journalist seems to be aware of the potential damage that this documentary could cause, though his protestations that he didn’t know about the genocide when it was happening right under his nose are unconvincing and ridiculed by his friends. When the men look through their own rushes they are more concerned with the detail than the gravity of their actions; Congo is horrified to see himself on-screen in white trousers. He’d never have worn them in real life because of all the blood, he says, without a hint of self-awareness.
Talk of the International Criminal Court in The Hague is scoffed at, and due to their links to the existing right-wing paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila – which grew out of the death squads – Congo and Koto appear to be beyond punishment within Indonesia. Pemuda Pancasila includes high ranking government ministers among its most senior members, and they are open here about the organisation’s involvement in genocide, corruption, election-rigging and more. With friends in high places Congo can even afford to appear on a national TV chat show and discuss his role in the brutality. The way the killings and other crimes are discussed matter-of-factly is extremely disconcerting.
As the film wears on, as a result of his experiences re-creating the actions of his death squad, Congo is visibly moved and apparently haunted by the memories he has of the events of the mid-1960s. The narrative suggests that his genial all-singing, all-dancing bonhomie supposedly hides an inner torment, but is he truly horrified by what he did as a younger man? His guttural retching as he re-visits one death site suggests so, but in an earlier scene he watches his own recreation footage and is less convincing when he tells Oppenheimer that the penny has finally dropped. “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks. “I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear come, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me, and possessed me.” Oppenheimer calmly disguises his own disbelief when responding: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because you knew it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.”
Oppenheimer has been criticised for not giving enough historical context, and no relatives of the deceased are interviewed in the documentary, but this documentary really is as unconventional as they come. I don’t think it’s necessary to hear such voices; we can probably guess what they would say, although it’s also likely many would turn down the opportunity to speak out for fear of recriminations anyway – there are 49 crew members listed in the credits here as ‘Anonymous’, which speaks volumes. By giving those involved in the genocide this platform Oppenheimer provides plenty of rope with which they gleefully hang themselves: they are more than capable of doing so on their own. The role of foreign powers in funding or supporting the killings is subtly highlighted by the director, too: a revolving McDonald’s logo at the start reveals that the US in particular had a lot to gain if the Indonesian market was opened up. The film provides plenty of context in my opinion.
Incredibly, Oppenheimer’s relationship with Congo, Koto et al appears to be the same as it was before The Act Of Killing was released. A companion documentary, The Look Of Silence, opened at the Venice Film Festival in August and will receive a wider release in the near future, although it is apparently a more conventional and confrontational work. I am keen to see it as this initial installment is as fascinating as it is original, as harrowing as it is shocking.
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Running Time: 122 minutes