SXSW Film Review – The Act of Killing
There are few films that have legitimately left a chill down my spine. The Act of Killing (2012) is one of them. This is a haunting, disturbing, and eye-opening documentary that looks into the minds of mass murderers. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (and co-directed by Christine Cynn and a source listed only as “Anonymous”), this story goes to places and reveals information I was shocked to see access to. This is like a real life nightmare, where the bad guys have won and are now in control. They freely admit responsibility for the bloodshed they caused, and do so with an enormous sense of pride. And to make matters even more unsettling, these men are actually considered heroes in their native country. Dealing with themes of morality, righteousness, and government control, this is a film that will burrow itself in your mind long after you’ve seen it.
Indonesia in 1965 was an alarming and violent time. A military coup overthrew the communist government. This was a brutal and heinous undertaking. Any suspected communist or native Chinese person was almost immediately put to death. To organize these massive exterminations, the military recruited gangsters off the street to lead. With reckless abandon, these death squads took out all dissenters in quick and bloody fashion. It’s said that approximately one million people were killed. Fast forward to the present, and these gangsters (who killed and maimed victims numbering in the hundreds) are treated as celebrities by their countrymen. Media propaganda labels them as patriots, and the government fully backs them as being necessary to the country’s strength. The way they converse about their experiences is no different than friends talking about the good old days of youth.
It’s stunning that Oppenheimer and his team were granted permission to film these individuals, but they do so with a unique twist. As a challenge, the filmmakers asked the gangsters/squad leaders to reenact the killings through different movie genres. These men were influenced by movie stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Al Pacino—they tried to mold their very personalities from movie characters. They are allowed to write their own stories, choose their own genres, and wear their own costumes. They are completely in control of the kind of “movie” they are making, whether it is a gangster picture or a musical. But in reality, what Oppenheimer does is make these men come face to face with what they’ve done, and think about what ramifications it may have caused. They were never convicted (or even arrested) for their murders, and each person internalizes the morality of that in their own way. Some are completely guilt-free, while others struggle to come to grips with it.
The most fascinating character is a man named Anwar Congo. Anwar was a gangster, a street kid known to scalp movie tickets. He was placed as a death squad leader, and describes in detail how his preferred method was strangulation with barbed wire. While he takes pride in what he did and still believes that all communists must be exterminated, the ghosts of those he killed haunt his dreams. When we first meet him, Anwar seems like a happy, friendly person. But as we continue and he begins working on the “film” with his colleagues, we begin to see his demons come forth. He confesses about having trouble sleeping, and how he cannot forget the faces of those he killed. Trying to suppress it, Anwar would delve into drugs, alcohol, and the party life. But the staged scenes only amplify the pain he’s feeling. This is both strange and fascinating; through this character development (of a real person), Anwar is revealed to have some humanity, even if he has done monstrous things. During a particular scene where a village is burned down, Anwar expresses his regret over the children having to see such violence and mayhem. Amazing, especially since he committed these acts in reality only a few decades ago.
The Act of Killing is a scary film, because it is true. These people, who seem normal and well-adjusted, are responsible for the deaths of countless others. And who knows what lives they have negatively affected in the decades since? But to fret over that would be treated as a sign of fragility. When Anwar describes to his friend the nightmares he has, his friend tells him that he is weak-minded, and should seek counseling. Counseling? To make him feel less guilty about being a mass murderer? This is only one of the many ways basic human ideals are twisted here. One line of dialogue shook me to my core. When asked what he thought of his actions being seen as war crimes, one retired squad leader exclaims, “War crimes are defined by the winners. I am a winner. So I can make my own definition.” The horror is in how accurate that is. Whoever has the power makes the rules, and with the right amount of influence, can convince others to think the same way. What a frightening thought.
Final Grade: A+