The Act of Killing opens with a quick visual of dark ocean waters. A famous quotation is superimposed over it and you can hear faint sounds of birds chirping, water rushing and the Indonesian wilderness. It would be a tranquil moment if it weren’t for the unsettling words on the screen: “It is forbidden to kill. Therefore, all murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. (These are the words of the French Enlightenment wordsmith Voltaire.) When a piano begins playing softly as the picture transitions to a group of female dancers, prancing and gliding daintily on a plank near a waterfall, it is oddly eerie, rather than comforting.
The strange scene, however, quickly reveals itself to be a production. The camera pans to two older Indonesian men – one trim with brown skin and graying hair, the other, taller, bulbous, and wearing a woman’s light blue gown, his face covered in make up. A director barks instructions over a loudspeaker in Bahasa Indonesia (the term for the Indonesia official language). It’s a mini bait-and-switch – making the audience feel as though they’re seeing something natural when it’s really an enactment – which director Josh Oppenheimer effectively pulls off in less than two minutes. The much larger bait-and-switch, though, is being pulled on the subjects of the documentary over the course of two stomach-churning hours.
In 1965, the Indonesian government, led by Surkano, the country’s first president, was overthrown by the military. Everyone opposed (or accused of being opposed) to the new dictatorship – “union members, landless farmers, intellectuals and the ethnic Chinese” – were purged. Over one million people who were dubbed “communists” were slaughtered by paramilitaries and gangsters by the end of the next year. The Act of Killing, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this year, is an unconventional film that examines the psyches of two former death squad leaders, one whom professed to have killed over 1,000 people during the two-year onslaught. Now, there have been many “profile of a killer/mass murderer/etc.” documentaries before this one. Most tend to consist of a mix of interviews with people who knew the killer and people involved in the case, photographs and dramatized re-enactments. The most exceptional might include interviews with the killers themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this format, aside from the fact that everyone has seen it a thousand times. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer deliberately eschews the traditional documentary setup in favor of something more innovative.
Instead of merely interviewing the killers, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkrady, Oppenheimer and his team of collaborators convinced them to re-enact their actual killings. The men, dreaming of Hollywood fame and glory, gladly agreed to participate in the project. Indonesia is well versed in Western pop culture, you see. They talk casually about their past atrocities and compare them, with no small amount of pride, to American gangster movies, such as The Godfather. Rather than talking heads and voice-overs, The Act of Killing uses these supposed movie scenes as its structure. However, the camera keeps rolling after every shot. When the movie camera is off, the men are generally joking around, boasting of their hand in exterminating the communist menace. When it’s on, they are all business. How these men are portrayed in the film means a great deal to them. They want to look heroic, they want to look snazzy and they want it to appear authentic. They put a tremendous amount of effort into all of it. But everything Oppenheimer captures is a more authentic portrait of who these guys really are; they just don’t realize it.
While it begins with Anwar nonchalantly demonstrating how he killed the majority of his victims – with a wire, strategically standing far away to avoid from getting blood on him – it escalates into showing staged beatings, beheadings and burnings. At first, the movie scenes are relatively simplistic (though still plenty chilling) and have the look of a “making-of” documentary, as you can see the cameramen and the crew in the shot. But as it goes on, Oppenheimer increasingly adds special effects that give the scenes a dramatic lift and a horrifyingly cinematic appeal. There is one part in particular that stands out; a scene in which a village and the people within it are burned. Right before it, current members of the military group, the Pancasila Youth – the organization that Anwar helped form during the purge – make jokes about raping communist women (one actually prefers fourteen year old girls). They then coach a group of women and children on how they should act during the impending raid scene. “Keep struggling. No one wants to be tortured, right? If you can save yourself, you should,” one of them says. “Ladies, think positively. If you think positively, your acting will be great and the scene will succeed,” says another before they film all of them getting slaughtered. And then, with hardly any warning, the scene comes alive. The sound grows distant, with the exception of a high-pitched squeal. Heads are sliced off, bodies are dragged away, men are beaten and kicked, children are whipped, and teeth clench in anguish. Eventually – and mercifully – someone off-screen yells “cut” and the dramatized horrors dissipate. Although some of the women and children are still shaken up, the Pansalia Youth raise their arms in victory at the realism of their scene. They try to comfort their loved ones who partook. None of it was real, they tell them, which is technically true – it was just a movie scene – but the audience knows that it was real.
From what the audience gets to see, the narrative of the “movie” doesn’t really make any sense. A movie of repeated killing scenes wouldn’t be much of a movie, but its stars make it even harder to comprehend by insisting on adding elements of all of their favorite movie genres. There are musical scenes, western scenes and gangster scenes. They feature elaborate costumes, grotesque makeup and props galore. As chilling and strange as it is to see Anwar, Adi and their friends act out their real killings as fantasies, that only covers half of what makes the real film so affecting. The interviews, the side conversations and the random interactions reveal the most about these people. They’ve all been involved – some more than others – in committing unpardonable sins, but they all process and cope with their pasts in very different ways. Some admit to turning to drugs, alcohol and music to make them feel better about what they’ve done. Others utilize pragmatism. When Oppenheimer prods one who refuses to feel guilty by saying “By telling yourself it was “war” you’re not haunted like Anwar. But the Geneva Conventions defines what you did as “war crimes,” he frankly says, “I don’t necessarily agree with those international laws”. “When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right according to Bush, but now it’s wrong,” he continues. “The Geneva Convention may be today’s morality, but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Convention and dump the Geneva Convention.” These guys may be in denial – some clearly are – but they’re not necessarily stupid. They may have committed monstrous acts, but they’re not monsters, either; they’re living, breathing humans.
Anwar Congo is the central human of the film. At the beginning, there was no one more eager to make a movie about his past crimes. On the surface, he seems to consider them accomplishments to be proud of, not something that should make him feel remorse. But as the movie goes on, you’ll find that that couldn’t be further from the truth, even if he doesn’t fully realize it. He relives the horror in his dreams nightly. Could reliving them in reality make him feel differently? Does he really want to revel in the purge, or is there a hidden side to him that is secretly trying to purge it all from his system?
As a movie, The Act of Killing is great in a similar way that 12 Years a Slave is great. They are both visceral and sickening, and they both depict horrendous acts of violence that really happened, but do so in very different ways. 12 Years a Slave uncompromisingly tells the devastating story of a man who suffered from common calamities that occurred during a specific time and in a specific place in history. The Act of Killing is an unvarnished depiction of men living in the aftermath of historical atrocities that they personally committed. However, they’re both effective reminders that real life can be, has been and is as terrifying as the most gothic horror story. In the stories, there’s nothing more frightening than a monster, but in real life, there’s nothing scarier than regular human beings. Unlike monsters, they exist – and they come in all forms.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.