The Act of Killing
2013 (US) - 115 minutes
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer
What is reality but our perception of the truth? In their own minds aren’t the deluded or deranged just as “right” as someone perceived to be rational? Though (we hope) humanity acts within a common framework of values that has a basic understanding of right and wrong, there are those that don’t. And that is terrifying.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s fascinating documentary “The Act of Killing” studies several Indonesian paramilitary members responsible for the death of thousands of suspected communists in the country’s political upheaval of the mid-1960s.
When we first meet Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, they appear as almost affable, eager to share their story. An aging tall, thin Congo paired with the short and rotund Koto feels almost like a classically mismatched comedy team – finishing each other’s sentences and joking around while having a few drinks. But any comedy to be mined from this oddball pairing is quickly overshadowed by the tales of mass murder the duo and their associates are telling. At least for any “rational” audience.
Oppenheimer and his team (many of them officially credited as “Anonymous” as they fear reprisals from their subjects) task Congo, Koto and others to re-create their acts though any filmic means they desire. Mimicking their favorite classic Hollywood genres – the gangster film, western, musical and more – the inept and underfunded makers of the film-within-a-film gleefully attempt to showcase a surrealistic version of their killings.
Some of the best moments have Congo and Koto reviewing footage that has been shot for their film. In one scene where Congo is watching himself act out murdering victims with a wire (which cuts down on the amount of blood), his only lament is that he’s wearing white pants and looks like he’s going to the beach. He would always wear jeans while committing the actual murders.
Unsettling in its unblinking look at its subjects and also the militaristic culture that allowed them to thrive, “The Act of Killing” is dark and deep with an added level of irrationality that is mind-boggling. Even in present-day Indonesia, the paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila is still revered and operates with 3 million members. Elected officials proudly wear the orange and black camouflage jackets of the group and their gangster ways are not only accepted, but celebrated. Throughout the film, several people remind us – including the country’s vice president – that the Indonesian word for “gangster” is derived from the term “free men.” It is believed that gangsters are a necessary means to preserve the country’s way of life.
When notorious gangster Congo plays a victim of wire strangulation in his own film – which began as almost a love letter to the memory of the communist purge – he proclaims to now have an understanding of what his victims felt. An amazing moment has Congo called out for his declaration and the façade starts to crack. The final scenes are wrenching, showing a genuine, personal shift in Congo’s emotional journey in reliving his murderous past.
“The Act of Killing” is an extraordinary cultural document and a truly powerful film.
© 2013 by Blake Crane