[This is a repost of our review from the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival]
After the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, the new regime declared that anyone determined to be a communist is to be executed. The executions were not carried out by the military itself but by hired guns. Typically these death squads were run by local gangsters. No one responsible for these war crimes has ever been made to answer for these atrocities that cost untold numbers of people their lives. Decades later, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn commemorate this dark period in Indonesian history by focusing their cameras on the men responsible. They will give them the opportunity to re-enact their crimes through film and they may do so in any way they desire. It sounds like a mere re-enactment but applied here that is a very simplistic generalization. The Act of Killing is compelling, fascinating, shocking, repugnant and powerful.
It is simply undeniable that this will be a difficult film to watch. The film opens on a striking image of a fish-shaped building with green mountains and a lake in the background. Dancers begin to emerge from the fish’s mouth. This will likely be the last semblance of beauty seen in the film. Compelled by their task the gangsters embrace the notion of being movie stars and immediately set out to recreate the past. A simple scene of a woman attempting to prevent her home from being entered is unsettling. Firstly, while she may be acting it out you are left to wonder if she went through or witnessed such atrocities. Secondly, the men acting in, and at times directing, the scene are the ones who committed those crimes decades ago. You get the sense that the people still fear them and that these men would entertain the idea of taking their lives.
The subjects of the documentary are shocking. They appear to be unremorseful and callous. They fully embrace what they have done and often appear proud of it. As the film progresses they begin to fancy themselves as “Hollywood” gangsters. In fact, they go so far as to adopt that look later in the film. It feels like they are completely mocking the plight that they put people through in the past. During a recreation of a village massacre you can’t help but feel sick by how proud these men look more so for the fact that they are making a movie as opposed to watching their crimes unfold before their eyes. Nothing more telling than when one of the gangsters attempts to console a traumatized child by telling her to stop crying because the camera is off. Most shocking is that in a way they actually come off as competent filmmakers. Some of the scenes they create are visually striking or outright bizarre like it comes straight out of a Troma nightmare. The “Born Free’ music video is brazen, unexpected and rather funny.
Is this really all the film is about? Watching criminals recreate their past exploits. At first it would seem that way. However as the film progresses Oppenheimer focuses on one individual, Anwar Congo. He is a former member of the paramilitary and was responsible for taking scores of lives. Early in the film he chillingly recreates one way that he tortured and killed people in his care. He seems quite proud and just in his actions. However, we gradually begin to see cracks through the armor. The crew decides to put one of Congo’s nightmares on film and upon witnessing it you realize that something is eating away at him. Without coercing or directing him, Oppenheimer allows this to play out to its conclusion. It’s a conclusion that is like a punch to
the gut. It’s powerful and haunting and will likely be etched in your memory long after. When it ends are we asked to feel compassion towards them or are we asked to feel as detached and callous towards them as they were to the scores of people they’ve killed? Only you can determine that.
At first The Act of Killing looks like it would be a documentary focusing on a unique perspective of a past atrocity which it is. As it unfolds it becomes more than that and it is hard to say how the viewer will react to the events as they occur. As mentioned before it is not an easy film to get through. It is truly compelling, striking, horrifying and at times oddly amusing. It’s an experience you will not likely soon forget.