The Act of Killing is a documentary about death squad leaders in Indonesia’s 1965 genocide, but it begins with a landscape of mountains and ocean, and a giant fish statue on railroad tracks, from which brightly clothed dancers emerge. The film cuts to a shot of the same dancers in front of a gushing waterfall; the dancers are waving their arms, and a director is yelling that they should experience, “real joy.” The performance soon ends, and along with it, the illusion of happiness. The actors are cold, tired, and just doing their job.
These scenes — surreal, dream-like, and visually arresting — are what distinguish The Act of Killing from conventional documentaries. Close to eight years in the making, the film explores the psyches of the men who perpetrated the deaths of thousands of people in Indonesia's anti-communist purges of 1965 and 1966. Rather than providing a simple narrative, director Joshua Oppenheimer asked the death squad leaders to not only tell their stories, but to reenact their killings for the camera. Through personal interviews and surreal scenes like those that open the film, Oppenheimer carefully explores how small-time gangsters could commit massive murder, and emerge as national heroes who are proud of their crimes.
And what is so captivating — and disturbing — about the film is that it offers no clear answers.
By placing the camera in the hands of the killers, Oppenheimer provides us with a unique, intimate look at how these men remember their killings and perceive themselves. The main players of the documentary, Anwar Congo, and his round, theatrical sidekick, Herman Koto, are portrayed as both incredibly cruel and incredibly human. Though they easily admit to slaughtering hundreds of “communists,” they are also depicted as ordinary, and even comical, human beings, who love of American films and wish to go beyond the violence they have seen on screen. Given the opportunity to film themselves in whatever style they choose, the men depict themselves as film noir gangsters, Western cowboys, and demonic monsters in B-movie horror flicks. These light and almost playful moments add an air of absurdity to the film, even as viewers are reminded that the fantastical scenes are reenactments of real killings, and that the comic, and at times oafish, characters committed hundreds of murders.
In this way, as much as The Act of Killing is about the 1965 killings and the paramilitary organizations that organized them, it is also an incredibly nuanced commentary on the power of film to influence violence, and, as demonstrated by the characters, to inspire self-reflection. It is not the reenactment of killings that helps Anwar understand the fear of his victims. Instead, as Anwar watches himself play the roles of both the killer and the victim, he begins to feel guilt for his crimes. The documentary's subtle, subversive narrative raises a plethora of questions about the kinds of justifications and self-rationalizations that are required to live with the knowledge of one’s crimes, especially in a society where perpetrators have been celebrated rather than condemned. In a recent interview with Documentary Channel, Oppenheimer commented on the paradox of guilt in the film, saying that, “what appears to be a sign of lack of remorse — boasting, the celebration of killing ... is not necessarily so. In fact, it can be the opposite. It can be a desperate effort to reassure yourself and to insist to the whole society that what you did was right.”
The Act of Killing certainly isn’t an easy film to see. It will leave you both repelled by and drawn to its characters. It is also a film that, as all great art should, speaks to something strange and disturbing about the human condition. It becomes much more than a documentary. As Oppenheimer described it, “It becomes a kind of fever dream, in which we see the fiction that creates us, and that we create by which we create ourselves, sort of spiral out of control and to its limits, only to crash back into a kind of digestible reality.”
The Act of Killing premiered in New York on July 19, and opened in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. on Friday. What are your thoughts on the film? Let us know in the comments!