In film-making, it’s not enough to have a theme prevalent in the film. The director has to have a reason for exploring whatever it is they’re depicting on screen. The theme begs a question, and the writer/director must answer it. The director needs a voice, an opinion. If a film shows war and death, so what? We know this happens in the world. What does the director want to say about war and death? This is key, otherwise it’s just navel-gazing.
Documentaries are a different kind of film-making, one where we expect the film-maker to not voice their opinion, to just present the facts. Joshua Oppenheimer’s unflinching portrayal of Indonesia’s violent legacy is stunning for its adherence to this rule, by staring straight into the faces of killers and not blinking. The men damn themselves.
Oppenheimer’s route towards the making of this documentary is a progression of the area he explored in his previous work The Globalization Tapes (2003). Following on from that he found his curiosity piqued by a little-known period of anti-Communist purging in Indonesia, resulting in massacres during 1965 to 66. Ultimately Oppenheimer found himself engrossed by the subject of this documentary, a man named Anwar Congo. Responsible for killing approximately 1000 people during the years of terror and oppression.
These days, Anwar lives in relative normality, a decent house, friends, family. Everything on the surface is mundane, but his past is a brutal rags to riches tale, one that is treated like a normal rites of passage. At one point on a TV show a host cheerfully interviews Anwar on his past, and how he helped Indonesia eradicate and exterminate Communists. Anwar cheerfully replies, this is his moment in the spotlight and he loves the film medium. Meanwhile behind the scenes, Television workers gaze into their monitors while idly chatting about how messed up Anwar must be, to have killed so many people. It must have surely driven him insane.
What The Act of Killing explores is this question among many others. How does one kill so many people and live with it? How does a society suffer these massacres and continue to function with the killers in charge? How can a collective ignore the reality of history?
The corruption of the 60’s continues to this day in modern Indonesia, most acutely highlighted as we observe the paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila. A group so powerful its members (which include government ministers) are confident enough to boast to camera their habits of corruption, ranging from people smuggling to rigging elections. They are essentially a step up above common gangsters, and as the viewer we see a traditional gangster trope play out: a Pancasila member struts through a market, preying on Chinese shopkeepers, forcing them to hand over cash for some trivial Pancasila-related purpose. Oppenheimer’s camera observes with no narration, there is no need for him to voice what is plainly obvious and unhidden. An organisation deeply entrenched in Indonesian society, and continuing to espouse their extreme views, trundling along like a true dystopic militia.
Anwar, ironically physically resembling Nelson Mandela at times, is our guide to this tale, a window to this world. He was not born a professional killer for a death squad hired by the government. As a young man he did what was probably the most logical thing to do, to work in a cinema while acting a gangster outside when the opportunity arose. For him, gangster meant ‘free man’, which is a phrase that is repeated by various people through the documentary like a mantra.
The Act of Killing explores the relationship of the film medium in interesting ways. The connection between cinema, and government propaganda. Anwar himself was inspired by famous movies in his method of killing people, which is sure to make some famous directors blink in horror. The documentary helps him finally achieve a lifelong dream, appearing in his own film orchestrated by Oppenheimer’s assistance, in a set of incredibly bizarre reenactments of his past killings, starring both as himself and as his own victims.
We see him proudly show the camera the most efficient method for killing someone, using wire, and then soon after we see him do a little dance and song, we see him laugh with friends at their past antics, all the different ways a human can be killed, Anwar’s seen and done them all. The collective national hatred for Communists is so entrenched in the society that nobody stops to think why. ‘Communist’ is just a word that inspires murderous rage like a Pavlovian effect.
These tutorials soon evolve into low-budget scenes as Anwar ropes in friends to help him act out versions of his interrogations of Communists, suspects, subversives, ethnic Chinese and basically anyone who pissed powerful people off, or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anwar is not doing this in a smug evil way, he’s not proud of his actions in the traditional sense, but he is eager to show the viewer what he did for posterity. There is a moment when he grabs his two nephews to show them a brutal interrogation scene starring himself as the victim, but after a while sends them on their way, uncomfortable with his own performance.
These reenactments get more and more bizarre, reaching its most horrifying apex with a reenactment of a massacre that literally scars the women and children roped in to ‘act’ the scene out. By the time the Pancasila member playing the role of director yells ‘cut’, the children are in tears, and one woman is catatonic at what she’d endured. Anwar fidgets with unease in the periphery. This is the genius of this amazing documentary, the longer Anwar is involved with these reenactments, the more something inside him begins to move.
From around the midway point, Anwar’s pragmatic friend (and fellow ex-death squad member) Adi visits the country with a fresh perspective on what they did in their pasts. His summary of their actions seems like common sense to the average viewer, but for them it’s revelatory. He acknowledges seemingly after years of introspection that the Communists were painted as the enemy for politically ambiguous reasons and were killed for nothing; all of the propaganda is obvious to him in hindsight. Adi seemingly has the courage to accept that he was duped by the government, and that the victims were persecuted unjustly, but he does not seem to have the same courage to face his own killings, instead opting to rationalise them in the same manner as history is always defined by the victor in a war.
The Act of Killing is populated by astounding scenes, such as the instance during a reenactment in a TV studio set, where one man explains how he lost his step-father during the killings, perhaps even at the hand of Anwar himself for all he knows, and then in the present day we see him act as one of Anwar’s victims to alarming affect. Suddenly we’re back in time, and Anwar along with Adi is transfixed watching this man get beaten and abused by the actors in the scene. The veneer continues to crack, you can see it in Anwar’s eyes, the uncomfortable sensation rising to the surface of his mind, but still beyond comprehension.
What makes the documentary sublime is when it diverts from a portrait of one man and takes in the whole picture. The reality of history is called into question, as Adi remarks to people what the consequences of releasing this documentary would be. It would justify his reasoning that the Communists were simply exterminated for no good reason. The people around him essentially shove their heads into the sand, and tell him they know what history is, what happened was reasonable, and they’re not bad people. Their history can’t be redefined. Adi is a fascinating character for being at peace with his own version of reality.
Towards the latter half the documentary focuses more on the corrupt regime, the hypocrisy of the leadership, who show themselves to be just petty thugs in uniforms. The film is full of darkly humorous scenes and transitions. One notable example is where the leader of Pancasila, often depicted as a misogynist, sits at a glitzy gala dinner joking about whores and gang bangs, which is then subsequently followed by footage moments later of him and his cronies praying with palms up.
The documentary is long, but Anwar is a constant presence, and his journey is what makes the length worth it. By the end, something has changed for this man. For all the criticisms this documentary may generate, all of the suffering depicted and horrible people given a platform to showcase their ugly natures, it’s all entirely worth it for what happens to Anwar. This man who has taken an unbelievable number of lives from this world, reaches a point of comprehension, that again the average viewer may consider common sense, but for him is an epiphany.
Acting as victim to his own torture methods repeatedly, he finally reaches his limit during one instance, and it shakes him to his core. I won’t explain how Anwar’s journey climaxes, but it had me riveted to the screen.
When realisation and remorse finally surface for this man, it’s the most profound character arc I’ve ever seen in a film. The lengths this documentary goes in order to get Anwar to realise the enormity of his actions is incredible, but Oppenheimer shows supreme patience in ekeing out Anwar’s humanity, to cathartic effect. I was literally in tears while cognizant of the fact that this man has probably killed a thousand humans in his lifetime.
Oppenheimer’s accomplishment transcends moving pictures, reaches out and touches the viewer, altering our perceptions just as it altered Anwar’s.