Ever since Roger Ebert’s death, his website has been maintained by a number of film critics whose opinions he respected. One of the advantages of the increase in writers has been reviews of more and smaller films. On a whim, I decided to read Steven Boone’s review for Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing. It is a review of such eloquence and power that I’m not sure I can write anything that will meet it, but suffice it to say, it compelled me to seek the film out.
The Act of Killing is preceded by a video message from Oppenheimer where he tries to provide an emotional context for his film. He says that though he doesn’t necessarily hope that you ‘enjoy’ the film, that you do find it a powerful, ‘even magical’ (his words) experience, and that it makes clear that lines between good and evil only exist, really, in movies. He also assures the audience that it’s okay to laugh, and that Indonesian audiences laugh more loudly and frequently than any other audience in the world. Indeed, there are a great many moments of humor to be found in The Act of Killing’s two hours, some light, others pitch black. Of course, having seen this movie in Olympia, the audience I was with was dead silent.
In 1965, the president of Indonesia was deposed in a bloody military coup. This group sought the extermination of communism, at that point the largest political party in Indonesia, and between the years of 1965 and 1966, approximately one million alleged Communists were killed, though they also targeted Chinese, farmers, and presumed intellectuals. To carry out these massacres, the military sought out street thugs and promoted them to executioners. This became the foundation of a power structure in Indonesia that still exists to this day. This genocide has never been tried in an international court and its participants never held accountable, many of them now integral players in Indonesian business and politics. The Act of Killing presents a challenge to the participants of these events: to create a feature film about their experiences, and to present them however they choose.
Anwar Congo is, for all intents and purposes, the main character. One of the most notorious executioners of his region, Congo is believed to have killed as many as a thousand people. Tall and gaunt, grey hair atop a laugh-lined face, Congo affects the air of the ‘cool grandpa’ with disturbing ease. His smile is contagious, and he exudes charisma. Taking us to the rooftop where he performed many of his killings, he cheerily tells us how his original method of beating his victims to death proved far too messy to clean up again and again. Bedecked in white pants and a button-down shirt, he shows us, with the aid of an assistant, the quicker, cleanlier methods of execution he devised. He then shows off us some of the moves he used to employ at the dance halls in his younger days. Watching this footage back later on, Congo assures us that he never would’ve worn white pants to kill someone; only jeans.
If there’s anybody approaching comic relief in this film, it’s Herman Koto. It feels strange to characterize a mass murderer as a ‘lovable schlub’, but goddammit I kind of felt that way about him. Portly, slack-jawed, and more than a little bumbling, Koto seems to be by turns Congo’s friend and his personal assistant. Herman sings when they go drinking, rewards Congo with massages for getting a strike at bowling, and throws himself headlong into the making of the movie. He plays a gangster here, directs some actors there, but repeatedly, repeatedly, dresses in drag, seemingly playing the role of every woman the film needs: witches, maidens, expectant mothers. In perhaps the film’s most surreally comic stretch, Herman decides to run for political office. Dressed in a Transformers t-shirt, Koto goes out among the people, asking for their vote. In response, he is openly chastised for not having the foresight to offer them bribes, or at least hand out free t-shirts.
The film within the film (which I don’t believe is ever named) encompasses a kaleidoscope of genres: some scenes look straight out of an (admittedly cool-looking) mafia film. Others seem to be inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Many scenes seem to belong to a bizarre musical comedy, girls clothed in garish feathers, Koto wearing some sort of drag, seemingly dancing out of the mouth of a giant model fish. (Where this fish is and for what purposes it was built, I do not know.)
The Act of Killing is about many things: the banality of institutionalized evil, the ways in which we bend reality to fit our truths, but it also about how our relationship with cinema influences our lives. Congo reminisces about his days as a ticket scalper for American movies and running gang operations out of cinemas. He talks especially fondly of gangster films and how he was inspired to strangle people with wire because of its prevalence in that genre. He was even more surprised at how effective it proved.
Repeatedly, the interviewees remind us that the Indonesian word for gangster originates from the Dutch words for ‘Free Man’ (a relic from that period of colonialism). They see it as something to aspire to, that many of the politicians and military are gangsters because gangsters are the only ones who get things done. That the freedom to do whatever you want to do – even if it’s wrong – takes precedence above all else.
Congo admits to long having had nightmares about what he’s done and of his victims. He fears going to a psychiatrist, because that would mean he’s ‘crazy’. One of his friends, Adi Zulkadry, assures him of the opposite; that shrinks are ‘nerve doctors’ and his feelings are simply a physical dysfunction. Handsome for his age, with a wife and daughter of his own, Zulkadry is possibly the film’s most terrifying subject, remarking on his actions lucidly and with placid detachment. When Oppenheimer reminds him that his actions are considered war crimes by the Geneva Conventions, Zulkadry argues that the Geneva Conventions of today could easily become the Jakarta Conventions of tomorrow. “‘War crimes’ are written by the winners,” he says. “And I’m a winner.”
As The Act of Killing draws to its conclusion, it goes from being a great documentary to a film of immense power. The thoughts of his victims weighing more and more heavily on his mind, Congo begins to construct his film in a different way. He moves from dramatizing his nightmares to recreating a village massacre to eventually playing one of the men he tortured and killed. In the film’s final moments, Congo returns us to where the place we began, the rooftop where his killed so many of his victims. His reaction is so primal, so violent, so physical that I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Over the course of two hours, you watch as a murderer lauded as a hero develop that most essential yet debilitating components of the human soul: a conscience.
Highly, highly recommended. See it whatever way you can.
You can read Steven Boone’s excellent review of it here.
You can find out more about the film here.
And you see an excellent interview with Oppenheimer here.
Oppenheimer is right: this is not likely to be a film you ‘enjoy.’ But I have no doubt you’ll be glad to have seen it.