Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer.
When most people think of documentary films, they imagine a series of talking heads interspersed with archival footage. This is what most documentaries over the years have been, and probably will continue to be for years to come. But more and more often, documentary filmmakers are stretching the boundaries of the genre – doing fascinating, interesting things, and coming up with movies as original as any fiction film. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is one of these documentaries. There will be people who complain that the movie is too easy on or sympathetic with its subjects or bring up ethical concerns with how Oppenheimer goes about getting the scenes he does, but it didn’t bother me. The Act of Killing is one of the most original, best documentaries of the year.
In 1965-66 the military tried to overthrow the government in Indonesia, failed, but then used “gangsters” to slaughter over half a million “communists” that led to a massive change in the political climate of the country. If you were identified as a communist, you were killed – although many weren’t really communists – they were union members, critics of the military or native Chinese citizens. This “purge” was supported by most Westerns governments, but what it was really genocide. But while most people who take part in this sort of slaughter are eventually held accountable – or at least viewed as murderers and war criminals, the gangsters who slaughtered the “communists” have been celebrated as heroes in their home country ever since. The Act of Killing sets out to explore this act of mass killing – and mainly the men who did it.
They are not hard to find. Everyone knows who they are, and in some cases, they live on the same street as the family of their victims. They also make no attempt to try and hide their involvement. They openly brag about it to anyone who will listen – often talking in front of their young grandchildren, and whoever else happens to be around. Members of the military don’t make it much of a secret either that they still respect these confessed killers – and the media brags about the role they played as well. In short, it doesn’t seem like anyone has any regrets about what happened or all the people they killed.
Oppenheimer comes up with an interesting way to get the killers to tell him about what happened – by having them recreate them. Learning that many of the killers loved American movies, the killers recreate the events in any way they choose to – and use different films genres – film noir, war film even the most bizarre musical I have ever seen – to show us what they did. This makes the whole movie rather surreal, and often very unsettling. The killers themselves play themselves, as well as their victims, and they use neighborhood children to play the kids of their victims, screaming and crying. The whole thing is surreal, disturbing and extremely effective.
Out of everyone Oppenheimer talks to, Anwar Congo starts to stand out. One of the gangsters who performed the killings, he starts out with the most swagger of anyone – bragging about what he did, showing how he came up with a way to make the killing less bloody. He seems completely at peace with everything he has done. But gradually, he lets the walls he has built around himself down. He confesses to nightmares he has had for years about the killings – which of course, they recreate – and when he has to play the victim in the “film noir” sequence, he breaks down – he cannot go through with it, because it feels too real to him. When questioned later by Oppenheimer, he says he now knows how his victims felt – but Oppenheimer challenges that idea. Congo knew he was going to be okay – his victims knew they were going to die.
The movie never loses sight of the fact that Congo is a murderer – by his own estimate, he killed at least 100 people. But it also never loses sight of the fact that Congo is a human being, not some kind of mythical monster. This will trouble some viewers – they want to hate Congo, see him not as a human, but as evil. But what Congo did was human – many, many people the world over have done what he has done. I was reminded by a moment in Werner Herzog’s TV documentary series On Death Row (Herzog, by the way, lends his name, alongside Errol Morris as an executive producer to this film) when one of the prosecutors says it is very easy for Herzog to “humanize” the murderer he is interviewing and Herzog replies “I do not humanize her. She is a human being, period.” And so is Congo. What he did was vile and evil, but Congo is a complicated human – and he is at the center of this fascinating documentary that deserves to be seen and debated, no matter what you make of it.