Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is not just a documentary. It’s also an act of confession, a mediation on the power of storytelling, and a kind of historical document. Watching the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about two quotations on the nature of history: George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and James Joyce’s “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
What we see in The Act of Killing is a kind of waking nightmare. In Indonesia, at least 500,000 people were killed from 1965-1966 after they were accused of being communists. The numbers might be as high as 1 million to 3 million. Paramilitary groups and gangsters did these killings, and today these mass murderers are celebrated as heroes. When they recount their tales of rape, murder, and torture, the people around them applaud. Some of the children who hear these narratives look bored, however, like they’re listening to a fishing story or want to say, “I’ve heard this one before, grandpa, tell me a different one.”
The Act of Killing may be one of the most chilling documentaries I’ve ever seen, and it’s easily one of the best and most important films of the year.
The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer; co-directed by Anonymous & Christine Cynn
Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (for a full list of theaters and dates, click here)
Anwar Congo is a former gangster responsible for the murder of at least 1,000 people by his own two hands. His methods varied. He recounts and re-enacts one particular form of murder on a rooftop. With his victim tied to a pole, he’d wrap a metal garrote around the communist’s neck, wrap his own end of the wire around a handle, and then lean back with all his weight. Anwar says he killed hundreds of people the same way on that very rooftop, and that the floor was always covered in blood.
After demonstrating this on camera, he smiles and does the cha-cha.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer catches this kind of brazen audacity on camera throughout The Act of Killing. During our interview with Oppenheimer, he mentioned his sense of moral duty to collect the narratives of these killers and these acts, and they offered their stories willingly. No one was ever punished for these crimes because the criminals won in the end, and so the criminality continues. The paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila (membership roughly 3 million) holds a lot of political sway within Indonesia and perpetuates their influence through continual intimidation and threat of violence.
The killers control the historical narrative of the country, and anyone who questions this narrative knows what can happen to them — there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of examples. Even the press is in on it, and there’s a moment where we learn just how important the press was in perpetrating genocide. If you stay through the end credits, you’ll notice that most of the native Indonesian crew is billed as “Anonymous” out of fear. Entire screens are filled with the name “Anonymous” in line after line after line.
There’s a film within a film in The Act of Killing, which makes the movie formally odd and yet daring because of the oddness. Rather than just a chronicle of a country ruled by fear and the murderers still at large, part of it is also a making-of. Anwar is asked to recreate some of his murders as a film, which is just a different way of sharing his personal narrative and the narrative of the country’s history. The Act of Killing is fundamentally about the act of storytelling, and how storytelling, among many other things, serves various historical and psychological functions. The film within the film is no gimmick but a way of revealing how killers like Anwar view themselves.
Anwar shoots a few of these scenes garishly, fantastically. He even incorporates slapstick, genre conventions, and genre-bending. There’s gender-bending too. Herman Koto, one of Anwar’s fellow murderers, dresses in over-the-top drag for a few scenes. He bulges out of bikinis and dresses like Divine in a John Waters movie. One of these scenes is an oddball take on the Western. Herman pleads not to be lassoed and raped by the cowboy paramilitary members. It’s the stuff of Benny Hill but about human misery. There’s an interrogation sequence that’s done like a film noir, with hard, moody shadows and tendrils of cigarette smoke languidly spiraling into frame.
These scenes of total artifice are included alongside more realistic, almost documentarian sequences. Whereas one interrogation looks like a ’40s B-picture, another seems all too real. Later, Anwar stages the raid of a village. More accurately, he recreates the historical destruction of an actual village. Huts are aflame, children scream, and the orange and black outfits of the Pemuda Pancasila zip in and out of frame. Men are in the process of being beaten to death. Women are in hysterics. Suddenly someone yells “Cut!” Most of the actors get up and applaud. Actual members of the Pemuda Pancasila dust off actors playing communists. Some of the actors have fainted. Some children can’t stop crying real tears.
Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are executive producers on The Act of Killing. The film speaks to their sensibilities as filmmakers since The Act of Killing is as much about the broader story of the country as the mind of the person who does the storytelling.
When you take away the stock footage and the Philip Glass score in an Errol Morris film, what you’re left with is someone sharing a narrative. It’s storytelling, it’s confession, and it’s told directly to Morris and the audience. In the act of telling a story, a person reveals what happened from their point of view. In doing so, they also reveal through word choice, detail, inflection, and body language who they are and who they think they are. When Anwar uses the tropes of the Western and the noir film, it’s because he felt like a high-riding cowboy and a Hollywood gangster. I wonder if other mass killers in the country experienced a similar sense of influence from film and a sense of identification with the heroes of these films. (They were backed by their own government to murder without repercussions. How could they not feel like heroes?)
As far as Werner Herzog’s sensibilities, his own documentaries are driven less by a strict pursuit of facts and more by the hunt for “ecstatic truth,” a phrase I’m pretty sure he coined himself. The ecstatic truth is what is essentially true (as in “most essential and most true”) about a moment. Herzog admits to doing multiple takes of documentary interviews in hopes that the refined responses will be more essentially true than the initial ones. It’s like drafting a story. Anwar’s recreations of factual history are getting at a kind of ecstatic truth. These are expression of Anwar’s memory and how he processes his memories, which wind up becoming more true than the mere facts of his crimes. Memories have the ability to haunt and fester.
The throughline in The Act of Killing is Anwar, and more specifically what happens to Anwar in the act of storytelling. He opens up throughout the course of the film, and as he opens up, there’s a budding sense of recognition. Storytelling has power. At the national level, the ruling party uses storytelling to perpetuate fear and to alter perceptions of history. At this personal level, storytelling may be a tool for human understanding.
That’s not the case for everyone, though. One of Anwar’s fellow murderers is Adi Zulkadry. He has no regret over what he did and shares his tales of murder with joy. He’s part of the ruling power and has bought into the narrative of their legitimacy. He laughs at the idea of human rights violations and gives Anwar some advice on how to suppress his guilt. It really does pay to be on the winning side of a massacre. Like the old adage says, “History is written by the victors,” and that’s the only story that Adi needs.
At one point of The Act of Killing, Adi says that the movie within a movie could be a game changer. If it’s successful, the film will reveal that the current ruling powers were truly cruel, and were much worse than the communists in the country. The revelation could change people’s perception of history 180 degrees.
There’s pride in Adi’s voice because he’s absolutely right. The problem: he doesn’t realize that he’s on the wrong side of history.
Alec Kubas-Meyer:The Act of Killing is as profound as it is boring. The trailer that was released that showed the flames and the stuff at the start and then made it seem like a documentary about the making of a film is misleading at best, and it put me in the wrong mindset. That scene of a burning village is the only scene like that in the film, something that’s only problematic if you’re expecting more. But even so, I wanted to see more of the film that Anwar and co. had been making. I felt the same irritation with Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions: I know for a fact that I won’t like the movie, but give me the option to watch it, damn it.
Admittedly, the boringness of the film is part of why it’s so horrific. These people did disgusting, terrible things, literally killing thousands of “communists,” and not only did they get away with it but they are celebrated for it. They recount the details (some of which would make grown men cry) with glee, or at least without remorse, and it creates a surreal and disturbing atmosphere. A scene where a random crew member starts telling a “funny story” about the death of his father and the subsequent burial is one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever seen in a film, made all the more terrifying by the fact that this was a thing that had actually happened.
But just because the lives these people lead are relatively mundane, it doesn’t mean a film about them has to be. The pacing is all kinds of wrong, and it detracted from the many moments that were truly fascinating. Even so, it would be impossible to not recommend this film. There’s a lot of terrible and amazing stuff in here that I won’t soon (or ever) forget. Neither will you. 78 – Good