I know I’m incredibly late to this party, and that most of what I will write is nothing new to the conversation about this film, but I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t do my part to get you to watch this film.
The film follows Anwar Congo, a former death squad member who participated in the slaughter of millions of Indonesian “communists” in 1965-1966, personally killing almost 1000 of them. In his old age he is somewhat of a celebrity, enjoying impunity along with other gangsters like him. They set out to reenact on film the killings that they perpetrated.
That’s only what’s happening on the surface, directly underneath we are witness to a multitude of unsettling truths. This movie could have just been a call for action on the unchecked and rampantly corrupt impunity of these gangsters in Indonesia – and it is to a certain extent – and it would have made a perfectly serviceable and effective documentary. But what director Joshua Oppenheimer and co-director Christine Cynn do is peek into the darkest corners of humanity to reveal universal truths regarding how we confront past actions through remediation/art.
It’s important to note that Werner Herzog is an executive producer on this film, and Oppenheimer is certainly a believer in his philosophy of ecstatic truth vs. accountant’s truth. The accountant’s truth is solely factual, numbers on a page, nothing but statistics. The ecstatic truth is the truth that is revealed through fiction, through art, through remediation. It essentially argues that the ecstatic truth can reveal a higher universal truth than the accountant’s truth can. “The Act of Killing” roots its direction in that philosophy.
At the beginning of the film, Congo and company seemingly have no regrets or guilt regarding their actions. They are certain that they were doing the right thing, but reassure themselves in differing ways. As one of them, Adi Zulkadry says “We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And, the proof is we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works: I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”
Throughout the film, as they get deeper into the reenactments, guilt and subjective understanding of their victims begins to creep in. As they are doing a scene, one of them will point out that they can’t film it exactly as it happened. It paints them as the cruel ones, not the communists. They need to, for lack of a better term, “jazz it up” so that people won’t watch it and hate them for what they did. They indulge in the stylizations of American films they enjoyed and drew from as young men for their methods of killing. We get their interpretations of these killings through the Gangster genre, the Western and even the surreal fantasy. The way they interpret what they did in these aesthetics is alarmingly haunting, and reveals a core essence of how filmmaking produces a tone, emotion and interpretation.
What is so disarming about these gangsters is how friendly they can seem at times. Even though they relish in impunity, casually reminiscing about committed rapes, forgeries, killings and brutality on camera, they still have shades about them that make them relatable, even almost likeable.
Congo has grown gentle in old age playing the part of a loving grandfather, has a comforting smile, and whose overall complexion many critics suggest recalls that of Nelson Mandela. Herman Koto, Congo’s overweight right-hand man could have been a comedy star in another life. Adi Zulkadry seems too benign to have ever mindlessly participated in genocide.
The last 10-15 minutes of the film are some of the most arresting and emotionally conflicting I’ve witnessed. I don’t want to spoil anything, but everything that has been simmering comes to a confrontational boil. Questions are raised to the audience that won’t leave me for a very long time, if at all.