Before Werner Herzog signed on as executive producer for Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s provocatively titled documentary out of Denmark, Norway and the UK, he declared, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade…it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The Act of Killing, a meditation on the brutal killings of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese committed by right-wing gangsters in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, is indeed disturbing and riveting. What seems to be a pretty standard documentary topic is seen from a different angle: instead of focusing on the victims of the massacres, the killers are given to stage to re-enact the scenes of their proud, cruel past.
Oppenheimer’s camera crew grants lead gangster/paramilitary leader Anwar Congo and his followers access to film equipment, giving them free reign to recreate the episodes of the famous tortures and killings which have made them revered, feared, and essentially heroes in modern Indonesia. As former movie theater scalpers and ardent idolaters of the Hollywood films the Communists banned in the 60s, Congo and his fellow executioners opt to interpret their deeds within the context of their favorite film genres, most notably gangster pictures, westerns, and musicals. As the film experiment progresses through different scenarios depicting interrogation, torture, ravishing villages, and killing, the former murderers discuss their philosophies that help them cope with their crimes, and eventually, the nostalgia becomes too much for them to handle. The surreal imaginings of Congo’s nightmare sequences and the scene in which he’s the torture victim being subject to his chosen methods of killing shock him with the affirmation that he now knows what the victims must have felt like. In one of his few behind-the-camera interventions throughout the film, Oppenheimer reminds Congo that, actually the victims felt much worse because they knew they were being killed whereas he knows he’s just part of a film.
The proud, unapologetic perspective of the killers nearly 50 years after their crimes is certainly an intriguing psychological observation. Although they stand staunchly behind their actions and deem them to have been necessary, they do admit to being haunted by the lingering ghosts of their past. Congo repeatedly mentions his inability to sleep at night due to the nightmares he’s certain are caused by killing nearly a thousand people. His anecdote about lopping off one victim’s head and feeling regret at not closing the eyes in the severed head reiterates the sense of spiritual indignity he’s somehow capable of knowing. The most interesting parts are when Oppenheimer focuses on the trivial manner in which the killers treat their cruel actions. When Congo and his buddies are looking at old photos of themselves dated at the time of the massacres, they discuss in detail what kinds of clothes they should wear for the scenes they’re going to film. Upon watching a clip of himself wearing white pants and a bright green floral shirt while demonstrating the strangling method he preferred, Congo critiques himself: “I never would have worn white…I look like I’m dressed for a picnic.” Then when filming takes place, there are extremely real moments of chaos bordering on not being acting anymore; there’s a real fear being captured in the actors, especially in the women and children during the village attack set piece. The aged gangsters’ discussions on the difference between “cruel” and “sadistic” are interesting exercises in psychology and semantics, with one of them dismissively correcting his buddy who firmly believes there’s a difference by saying, “You’re playing with words.” The uncomfortably violent dry-heaving and retching attack Congo has while he’s at the site where he spilled so much blood ends the film with its intended physically and emotionally sickening and disturbing sensation.
While the film could benefit from a greater historical context in which to place the period of crimes in question since it’s not a widely studied or documented conflict, it’s essentially not about the account of the killings but rather the consequences upon the perpetrators and the modern political regime. The government today still condones the actions of the gangsters because, according to the Vice President of Indonesia, “We need gangsters to get things done.” Repeatedly throughout, the origin of the word “gangster” is alleged to mean “free man” and therefore justifies the actions of murderous thugs who were the law of the land.