on September 5, 2013
In 1965 the Indonesian military responded to an attempted coup with the massacre of at least 500,000 people. They employed local gangs to help carry out these murders, transforming young idling street toughs into death squads who killed without abandon or regard to the political pretense of eradicating the alleged communist threat.
Anwar Congo is one of these killers, a flamboyant man with a penchant for the gangster movies he once stood outside scalping tickets to. Anwar has never been charged for his crimes. To the contrary, his atrocities have made him somewhat of a minor celebrity in his hometown of Medan, a large city in Sumatra. He believes he is responsible for murdering about a thousand people; mostly by strangling them with piano wire, the way gangsters did it in the movies.
Joshua Oppenheimer met Mr. Congo traveling through Indonesia while working on another project. He was struck by Congo's zeal in recounting his horrific acts like an aged athlete recalling his bygone glory days, acting out his crimes and providing little asides on the most efficient methods of killing a large number of people quickly and cleanly.
Oppenheimer proposed filming and financing re-enactments of Congo's crimes starring the murderer himself, his surviving accomplices, and his young lackeys. As inexplicable as Oppenheimer's proposition to help a mass murderer make a film is, Congo's decision to recreate his transgressions through an array of genres - horror, musical, war, westerns and, of course, gangster - is even more baffling. Oppenheimer's documentary, The Act of Killing, is the collision of Congo's bizarre scenes realized, chilling interviews, and fly on the wall observation.
The fact Congo maintained final cut gives the documentary its occasional perverse comedy. Laughing at these men's lack of sophistication is double-edged; it's this same absence of self-awareness that made them capable of killing thousands of people and recall their actions with little of no sense of remorse. So when one young lackey engages in a quixotic run for public office, explaining how much easier it will make shaking people down for bribes, it feels almost as absurd as something off of NBC's Parks & Recreations, while providing a prime example of what makes Indonesia so hopelessly corrupt.
This sort of ironic detachment takes an even darker turn when a man recalls the murder of his father during the '65 genocide. The man suggests the story would make a good addition to the film. One would think Anwar would recognize this thinly veiled confrontation by a victim, or perhaps feel some tug of guilt for his participation in events that led to the death of this man's father. But Congo is unable to see past his film, and dismisses the idea, characteristically, without thought.
And yet, The Act of Killing does catch glimpses of some semblance of remorse in Anwar Congo. On several occasions, local citizens are solicited to act the part of Communist dissidents. Most decline, visibly terrified of being mistaken for Communists. Yet a few do concede (likely for what is to them a great deal of money), and as they are mock beaten and murdered their children fall into hysterics, not understanding what is going on. One woman appears to slip into shock from the experience.
It's at moments like these that something like regret appears in Congo's face. There are also admissions of terrible nightmares that have plagued him for years, quieter conversations with accomplices about coping with memories, and a final fifteen minutes which are almost unbearable to watch.
But while watching all of this, I couldn't help wonder if Oppenheimer had discovered and crossed some line of ethics with his film. Yes, we sit in judgment of Congo, but he himself is blissfully unaware of this. All he sees is the medium provided to glorify his actions. Even since The Act of Killing was released, Congo's complaints are detached from the crimes, instead focusing on his feeling of being misled in terms of the type of film he was making.
But most troubling, is it ethically sound to make a movie that causes participants trauma or puts lives in danger? My knee jerk reaction is to say such a film should not be produced. But this feeling is countered by the powerful visceral reaction viewing this film stirred in me.
The Act of Killing, is many things: sober documentary, meta-film within a film; exploitative, surrealist, funny and always deeply uncomfortable. I can safely say I have never seen a movie like it, and that my thoughts returned to its characters and images in a way only a few documentary films have. It is a unique and troubling masterpiece.
It is quite unusual to come across a piece of film making that owes so little to what has gone before, it has to be absolutely unique. This is essentially a documentary about the Indonesian killing squads from the 1960’s and what they did, but with them re-enacting their deeds.
The ‘gangsters’ are all Hollywood movie fans and so Director and visionary Joshua Oppenheimer invites these men to make their own films about what they did. They can use any medium they like. So we have exotic dancers emerging from the mouth of a wooden fish building. Actors parading in front of a waterfall pretending to be in heaven and a re-enactment of a village massacre, to name but three. Plus the obligatory scenes of torture and execution, with some bizarre make up in places. I do not know how he got these men to talk about what they did or to show in such graphic detail.
I often make notes if I am going to write a review, normally only a few sentences, but I wrote two pages on this. The main guy is Anwar Congo who shows us his Hollywood inspired garrotting and dyes his hair especially for the re-enactments. They all talk with disarming frankness about their crimes insisting that they, as gangsters, were always going to be better than communists.
They ignore the contradiction with Islam being into drugs, alcohol, mass murder etc. They still extort the ethnic Chinese and were content to be filmed doing this. They strut around with impunity and some of the scenes they get people to act for them and they all seem to be genuinely terrified, especially the children. One of them keeps dressing up as his women victims in a grotesque parody of what really must have taken place. There is some remorse but to say too little, too late, is obviously not enough. They experience a tiny fraction of what they did to others and claim to be able to empathise, until its pointed out that they know they are not going to be actually tortured to death.
So ‘meet the killers’ would be a good alternative title, but I was left moved, disturbed and horrified in equal amounts and yet still amazed that this could all be true. An astonishing accomplishment that anyone seriously interested in film should see. It has haunted me since seeing it and I have been telling everyone about it. This ranks in my top five most disturbing films and the others are all fiction, this was sadly real.
"The Act of Killing" (2013 release; 115 min.) is a documentary from writer-director Joshua Oppenheimer who sets out to interview/expose several of the "evil-doers" behind the mass killings that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66. As the documentary opens, we get to know Anwar Congo, one of those directly involved in the killings. Anwar and several of his croonies have decided, apparently with some coaxing and suggesting from Oppenheimer, to make a movie about the events from 65-66, so as to preserve hisotry and making sure everyone knows what really happened, including how exactly these killings were executed.
Several comments: first and foremost, in what kind of a world do we live that these mass-murderers boast about what they did in the mid-60s without any fear of apprehension, let alone any regret over what they did? To the contrary, we see Anwar Congo and his croonies making the rounds of various media, including a national TV show, where the host merrily goes along. Likewise with Indonesia's politicians at the highest levels. Here is a Indonesian Vice-President addressing the Pancasila paramilitary oraganzation that did much of the killings in the mid-60s, there is the Minister of Information showing support for the making of the film, and on and on. It simple blows the mind. Second, it must be that these killers truly have no inkling why Oppenheimer is making this documentary, as they are on seemingly very friendly terms and a first-name basis with Oppenheimer throughout the movie. Third, the re-enactments make for difficult movie-watching at times, in particular the further we get into the movie. This is most definitely not for the faint of heart, so viewer beware.
I saw this movie just this past weekend at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, and the particular matinee showing I was at was very well attended, somewhat of a surprise to me, given the subject matter of this movie. The showing actually started with "A special announcement from director Joshua Oppenheimer", in which Oppenheimer introduces the movie and concludes "I won't say 'enjoy the film' as it's not necessarily that kind of a movie, but I would hope that you have a powerful movie experience", and that it certainly is, and then some! This movie is one of the more unusual documentaries I have seen in a long time. Assuming you can handle the at times schocking and always revolting characters we get to know in the movie, this is definitely a movie you want to (need to) see, be it at home or in the theatre, and I fully expect this documentary will be in the running for the Best Documentary Oscar early next year. "The Act of Killing" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
on March 3, 2014
(This is a review of the director's version which may contain scenes not in the theatrical version) In 1965, a military revolt in Indonesia crushed a popular movement and coup attempt. The military's actions were inspired by propaganda produced with the help of the CIA and the groups that were responsible for the revolt were composed of various paramilitary groups and violent street gangs funded by the US government because of its fear of communist elements in the popular movement and in the government. However after these paramilitary groups took over the country, they imposed decades of brutal authoritarian and genocidal policies purging anyone suspected of communist allegiance (again, endorsed and supported by the US government. We know this through the US government's own records released through the Freedom of Information Act). More than 2 million died as a result of political, religious and ethnic cleansing mainly against alleged communists and their families, Christians and ethnic Chinese. To this day, Indonesia is only gradually beginning to come out of that hell.
This film details the current lives of many of those who had done the dirty work of exterminating alleged communists and other undesirables within Indonesian society. Many of whom have now profited well and are treated as heroes in their country. Some remain as influential parts of the government today. A few of the most brutal murderers were given the opportunity to not only explain what they did but to show it through reenactments produced with the murderers as writers, producers and actors. Their crimes were never mechanized and systematized like the Nazis but they often used their hands and other crude instruments to murder and torture their victims.
The viewer is constantly in a state of prolonged horror when watching this movie as no other film portrays evil as palpably and as clearly. The film makers could have interviewed historians and victims or made reenactments that used professional actors as most documentaries do but the genius of this film is the realization that nothing conveys evil better than evil itself so they had the perpetrators recreate what they have done.
There are so many memorable scenes that will stay with a viewer forever.
The murderers talks about how they went about their business of murdering people in all the details and they seemed to relish reliving the memories. They laugh and dance to the internal echoes of their victims screams. There are remarkable admissions. At one point two of the leaders of the killing gangs talked about a famous anti-communist film all Indonesian children were made to watch and how it had instilled in them a violent hatred of communists. The film portrayed communists killing, torturing and raping Indonesians. One of the killers then mentioned what complete bs that film was and that it was a lie through and through used as propaganda and that they were the cruel and sadistic ones not the communists. The other killer agrees with him but says that they shouldn't talk this way in front of the camera or to foreigners. Other ex paramilitary and gang leaders talked about how much they enjoyed raping 14 year old girls and murdering the father's of their girlfriends.
Also interestingly, many of those who acted in the reenactments began to sob and cry during their scenes. Their reactions seemed to be wholly genuine outpouring of emotion instead of acting. After one particularly griping shoot involving a reenactment of a brutal interrogation, Anwar Congo broke down and wondered aloud whether his victims had felt the same level of fear and degradation he did during the scene. The director talking from behind the camera was quick to point out to him that his victims suffered far worse because Congo knew that this was a film but his victims knew they were going to die and were actually tortured to death.
In another interesting scene Congo goes back to his "headquarters" where he and his henchmen once interrogated hundreds of people and murdered them on the roof of the building. As the interview went on, he began to repeatedly dry heave. The more he talked the more it was interrupted with his hacking gags. This was presumably his physical repulsion by the memories of his actions which caused the gag reflex but it was almost like something out of a scene from an exorcism like a battle between a demon and him was occurring internally and the demon was trying to stay in and he was trying to expel it. It was surreal like much of the rest of the film.
Another subject and friend of Congo talked about his complete lack of guilt for what he did. The film shows him in mundane actions such as shopping in a modern mall with his wife and daughter or driving down a city street while the viewer is constantly reminded by the brutal and gory reenactments past actions in scenes before and immediately after. The director asks him at one point what he would feel if he was sent to the Hague to crimes against humanity and he said he would gladly go because it would make him famous around the world. He also mentioned how his crimes are like those committed in Nazi Germany and the United States at points in their history and that he likely won't be punished as well like the perpetrators of those crimes.
Many of the characters this film really are demonic beings (if you think my uses of the words 'demonic' and 'evil' are hyperbole, I suggest watching this film first then see if they are not perfectly fitting). This film might make a great antidote to those postmodern moral nihilists who deny the existence of evil.
But the most disturbing thing that one gets out of the film is a misanthropic realization that these people are not much different from the vast majority of humanity and that their society isn't that much different in its superficial callousness towards violence. Their crimes have been repeated throughout history in Germany, Japan and the United States and many other parts of the world. Moreover, the film shows how the cruelest actions can be blended with crude entertainment and political propaganda to produce a public acceptance of evil through conflating and sanitizing it. There is no guarantee that had any of us been tested in the same way we'd do the same or perhaps look the other way in cowardness or indifference instead of fighting against it.
This is perhaps one of the few films ever made where one is required a kind of courage, not a kind of superficial courage like what it takes to watch a really scary horror movie but a kind of moral courage to see and even greater courage to make.
on September 1, 2014
The Act of Killing. Film Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. 2013. 116 minutes. www.theactofkilling.com. DVD or Blu-Ray $19.99 standard edition, $24.99 deluxe edition. Review by J. Steven Svoboda
For the second consecutive issue of the ARC Newsletter, I am reviewing an important, superlative work devoted to human rights without any content directly relating to genital cutting. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 film, The Act of Killing, co-directed by Christine Cinn and an Indonesian who understandably remains anonymous, won no fewer than a stupendous seven documentary filmmaking awards.
As with Charli Carpenter’s outstanding book reviewed in the last issue (Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond), this motion picture simply must be seen by anyone with an interest in human rights, law, or justice.
What causes someone to knowingly, deliberately violate the right to life and security of another human being? Is it possible to do so and remain an intelligent, thinking person? Evidently some people find it possible to so compartmentalize their thinking that they can even take pleasure in recounting their atrocities and their excellence (if such a word can even be so used) at committing them. Even more shockingly, it seems that a large percentage of the country’s citizens propped up these torturers’ views of themselves.
The “star” of the film is gangster Anwar Congo, one of Suharto’s worst human rights violators and even today viewed as a hero by most Indonesian residents. In 1965, after Suharto overthrew the democratically elected president Sukarno, an ostensibly anti-Communist purge was conducted that caused the deaths of an astonishing total of over half million people. Congo was one of the main beneficiaries, as he made the career leap from selling black market movie theatre tickets to master-minding and leading what became a notorious North Sumatran death squad. Congo personally killed at least 1,000 people, usually by strangling them with wire using a method he breezily demonstrates in the film. After he re-enacts this killing method, he seems distraught, saying, “I can’t do that again.”
Today, as Oppenheimer graphically shows us, Congo is revered as a founding father of the right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila and its youth-oriented branch Pancaila Youth, which both trace their lineage through the death squads. Pemuda Pancasila is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to clearing out peasants for land developers and genocide.
Invited by Oppenheimer, Congo and his friends recount and re-enact their experiences and some of their killings for the cameras. The scenes are produced in the styles of their favorite film genres: gangster, western, and musical. As the film’s publicity says, “they re-create their real-life killings as they dance their way through musical sequences, twist arms in film noir gangster scenes, and gallop across prairies as Western cowboys.” While some of Congo's friends realize that the killings were wrong, others worry about the effects on their public image of the story being publicized.
After Congo plays the role of a victim of his own human rights violations, he finds himself unable to continue. He says that he feels what his victims have felt. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, points out that it was much worse for the victims, because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Congo was only acting. Congo then expresses doubts over whether he has sinned or not, tearfully saying he does not want the memories of what he did to come back to him. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, and gags repeatedly.
Congo’s comments are illuminating. He says: “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse. For example, if I’m asked to kill someone, if the compensation is right, (raising hands in air) then of course I’ll do it, and from one perspective it’s not wrong. That’s the perspective we must make ourselves believe.”
Another participant in the crimes tells smilingly of finding in a barrel the body of his own stepfather, who raised him. “We buried him like a goat next to the main road.” He laughingly continues, “Then all the Communist families were exiled. That’s why I’ve never been to school. That’s why I had to teach myself to read and write. I promise I’m not criticizing what we’re dong. It’s only input for the film.”
Chillingly, an employee in the office where many of the torture incidents occurs claims that he was never aware of what happened. Surprised, Congo replies, “Even the neighbors knew! How could he not know!”
Congo’s position on war crimes is illuminating: “War crimes are defined by the winners. So I can make my own definitions. I’m not bound by the Geneva Conventions..”
Congo appears on a modern day talk show with wildly applauding Pancasila Youth members in the audience. According to the smiling talk show host, Congo taught his country “a less sadistic way of killing communists and he avoided excessive violence.” The vice president of the country says at a Pancasila Youth meeting, “Beating people up is sometimes needed,” drawing cheers from the audience.
Congo has an answer as to why the children of the victims of his crimes have not taken revenge on him for their losses: “It’s not that they don’t want to take revenge. They can’t because we’d exterminate them all.”
Congo calls his grandkids to the television set to watch replays of some of the scenes he has filmed. “Come watch this scene where Grandpa is tortured and killed.” Oppenheimer asks, “But this is too violent. You sure?” Congo: “No problem. They’ll be fine.”
“Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks as he’s watching it.
“I can feel what the people I tortured feel. Because my dignity here has been destroyed, and then fear comes.” Starting to weep uncontrollably, he adds, “I did this to so many people. Is it all coming back to me? I really don’t want it to.”
Extortion of money from Chinese merchants is shown. Back in the day, merchants were refused to pay were ruthlessly murdered by Congo and his henchmen. Congo is clearly proud to show off how things were done.
Toward the end of the film, Congo makes an illuminating comparison: “Why do people watch films about the Nazis?” His answer: “To see power and sadism.” Congo repeatedly mentions being troubled by nightmares yet never draws the ever so obvious connection to his own actions.
If Congo never felt remorse, was never plagued by doubt, this would still be a powerhouse of a film. The fact that Oppenheimer and his co-directors were able to get this sort of honesty from their subjects is astonishing, and doubtless they risked their own lives to make the movie. The most impressive fact of all is that Congo is a human being, intermittently able to weep for his victims, to empathize for them, and to recognize the horrible nature of his actions. Yet at the end of the day, he laughs, excuses himself with his own professionalism and a recitation of the asserted political conditions that ostensibly forced his behavior. And in his view his actions have been sanitized, even justified. This film simply must be seen. It is a breathtaking achievement.
on January 7, 2014
In The Act of Killing, the former death squad members, now folk heroes, are asked to dramatize their exploits. Since these men started out as gangsters hustling movie theater tickets, there's an odd and repellent circular feel to the proceedings. These men love the movies, name dropping actors like Al Pacino and John Wayne as reference points for their murderous actions; on the talk show, Congo playfully suggests he resembles Sidney Poitier (he decidedly does not).
And so, we have history re-told as a musical, or a western, or a gangster film, or a horror movie, with the death squad members playing different roles; Congo gets done up in a dark wig (covering his greyed hair) and make-up to resemble his younger self. He also plays victim at points. Just like a "real movie," there are dream sequences, production numbers, and heroic speeches.
It's a fascinating perversion of humanity. Congo and his cohorts are remarkably candid about their deeds, offering up graphic descriptions of torture and murder in a strikingly facile manner. Congo talks about coming from watching an Elvis movie, and singing and dancing while he tortured people to death; Congo and the other killers seem to not have any real stake in politics whatsoever, no sense of self-righteousness or that the ends justified the means. They were merely mercenary thugs who parlayed a revolution into a money-making scheme. The film also notes that there was virtually no intervention from the western nations; if anything, there was tacit approval, likely because the death squads were eradicating "communists."
The film re-creations are bizarre and shocking, particularly the ones that feature Herman Koto, an obese paramilitary leader who does drag in his "film" scenes. Done up in elaborate make-up, headdresses, and wigs, as well as flowing, brightly colored gowns, Koto's female character turns up as villain, vamp, and a seemingly supernatural creature. If we did not know this man's history, it would be easy to see him as a comic relief actor, much like Italy's Bombolo.
Koto and Congo spend time watching the rushes and discussing their hopes for the finished film, taking it all very seriously, but frankly, it's difficult to imagine this mélànge of scenes and styles being cut together to make a cohesive, narrative.
The Act of Killing is fascinating, troubling, and infuriating on so many levels. On the one hand, it seems that these men are out to redeem themselves for actions that have no redemption—one paramilitary leader takes us on a tour of his opulent home, showing off delicate, one-of-a-kind glassware he's picked up on his world travels, offering himself as a genteel sophisticate. But then, we realize that these men really aren't seeking redemption, they're buying into their legend-status as heroes, even if they never set out to be. They make no apologies and few excuses for the atrocities they committed; on the contrary, they have bragging rights to the horrors.
Long before midpoint, it becomes awfully overwhelming—the reprehensible men cheerfully describing their inhumanity; the re-creations of the atrocities; the absolute soullessness of Congo and company; and the overblown, histrionic film-within-a film, which frankly looks more Bollywood—or even Dollywood—than Hollywood. At times, it comes perilously close to being less like watching a movie and more like experiencing a Black Box-style sensory overload.
The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an Indonesian filmmaker who has chosen to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal (a number of crew members also retained their anonymity for the same reason); Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) served as executive producers.
The two-Blu disc set includes the 166-minute director's cut as well as the 122-minute theatrical version. I watched the director's cut; generally, when given the option, that seems the way to go. I'm not so sure in this case. "Overwhelming" is again the word that comes to mind; I'm not sure what was removed for the theatrical release, but it's not hard to imagine losing 20 or so minutes from what I watched and still having a compelling, disturbing film.
Image quality is fine for this 1.78:1/1080p transfer, considering it's almost all interviews, archival footage, and scenes from the faux-movie, and cinematography wasn't the main focus. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is strong, with virtually all dialogue in Indonesian with non-removable subtitles.
The Act of Killing (Blu-ray) sports an impressive slate of supplements. Disc One, which contains the shorter theatrical version, includes an interview with Oppenheimer on Democracy Now; interviews with Herzog and Morris for Vice Presents; and deleted scenes, plus trailers for this film and other Drafthouse releases. The second disc, which contains the extended director's cut, also includes a commentary with Oppenheimer and Herzog. There is also a 64-page booklet with an essay by Morris, along with a code for a digital download. This is an excellent set of supplements, each one insightful and meaningful, adding to the viewing experiences as supplements should.
-Tom Becker, DVD VERDICT
Read the full review at dvdverdict.com
Nine Things about "The Act of Killing"
1. This is probably the most psychologically complex and mind-boggling documentary I’ve ever seen.
2. In 1960’s Indonesia, there was a failed military coup. As a result, thugs and small-time gangsters were turned into paramilitary death squads. They roamed the country and killed millions of people who were suspected of being “communist”. Anwar Congo was the most feared leader of one these death squads.
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer managed to make contact with Anwar, and asked him to recount his memories of that time. As the death squads are openly celebrated as heroes, Anwar eagerly agreed to make this movie.
3. The movie starts out with Anwar and his partner Herman openly boasting about the ways they tortured and killed people. The stories then turn to actual recreations of some of the murders and massacres. Anwar is sometimes glib (like discussing the best clothing to wear when you kill people), and sometimes regretful (such as when he admits that he usually didn’t close the eyes of the people’s heads once he cut them off).
4. Besides Anwar and Herman, we meet other people who were involved with the murders. They all have their own ways of dealing with what they’ve done. Many of them believe that the key to not be haunted by the ghosts of those they murdered is to never feel guilty.
5. This movie is really two movies in one. While Anwar and the other subjects think they're making a movie glorifying their role in the massacre of over a million people, Oppenheimer is really making the movie about Anwar and the regime that still can't be touched today.
6. In between the recreation of history, we also get a close look at the way Indonesia is run today – the rampant corruption, cynicism, and extortion. People love to explain repeatedly that the word “gangster” means “free man”. We come to understand that the death squads are part of an entire horrific pattern in the country’s psyche. This is normal life to them.
7. As Anwar recreates his “adventures”, he moves from playing himself to playing the victim’s role. Then he wants to act out the nightmares he has. The torture and murder scenes become increasingly elaborate. You can see him progress from self-important psychopath to trembling human being that questions everything he’s done. But he can’t apologize for it.
8. In the credits, the name "Anonymous" appears almost 50 times, because people working on the movie were afraid the death-squad killers would target them.
9. The movie is long, running almost three hours. It’s absurd, nightmarish, horrific, and amusingly surreal. It’s an unprecedented look at the psychology of mass murderers and the effects of trauma on those who cause it.
on January 22, 2014
Imagine walking up to a known killer and asking him to reenact one of his murders, then questioning him about all the gory details. Well, that’s exactly what Joshua Oppenheimer, the maker of the documentary “The Act of Killing,” did - over and over again, in fact.
The killers in question all committed their atrocities fifty-some-odd years ago as part of an anti-Communist purge in Indonesia perpetrated by the military dictatorship that had just risen to power there (it‘s made clear at the very beginning of the film that the “Communists“ were often just farmers, union members, Chinese immigrants, intellectuals and anyone not supportive of the military regime). In one year’s time, over a million such people had been slaughtered. Today many of the killers, all of whom have gone unpunished for their crimes, are now in positions of great influence and power in the government. The focus of the film is on two men and their minions in particular: Anwar Congo and Ad Zulkadry, members of one of the death squads in North Sumatra, personally responsible for the deaths of thousands. Congo went on to found a paramilitary right-wing organization known as Pemuda Pancasila, which boasts many adherents and followers - mainly young people - even today.
The makers of “The Act of Killing” have gathered together this group of self-proclaimed “gangsters,” who have decided to make a mainstream movie on the subject with themselves and their buddies as the stars. But what the documentarians actually wanted was to give these men the opportunity to relate not only how they committed the murders but how they feel about it all nearly five decades later. And it is their responses in this regard that make this such a stunning and disturbing movie to sit through. For not only is there virtually no remorse - or even much of an attempt at rationalization - expressed over the people they tortured and killed, these men can barely contain their feelings of nostalgia and pride as they regale their audiences with their memories. There are a few moments of quiet reflection: one man discusses the nightmares he occasionally has about the people he strangled; another dismisses concerns of morality by arguing that one generation’s war crimes are another generation’s accepted practices, and that the victors ultimately get to determine what is right and what is wrong in the long view of history (he brings up America’s decimation of its indigenous peoples and Bush’s sanctioning of torture at Guantanamo Bay as examples to buttress his argument). Apparently the PR spokesman for the group, this individual has at least enough of a perspective to fear that the movie that they are making may actually make themselves look cruel and the Communists sympathetic in the eyes of the general public if they re-create the tortures and killings too effectively.
Yet, such moments are the exceptions. Most of the time, we’re learning about how gratifying it can be to take another man’s life or rape a child or burn down a terrified family’s house as they watch. And it’s all supposed to be okay since “gangster” really means “free man,” a fact we are told at least a dozen times throughout the course of the movie. That is somehow supposed to justify not only the killings in the past but the corruption and abuse of power many of them are perpetrating in the present. And, most shockingly of all, the media and much of the general populace of the area seem to go along with it - though how much of their approbation is actually the product of fear is anyone’s guess.
The irony is that, while these “gangsters” keep declaiming against the evils of Communism, they have set up their own positions of power in a way perfectly aligned with how that system has worked wherever it has been tried. For instance, we see one of the men wending his way through a crowded marketplace, going from one honest, hardworking shopkeeper to another, extorting money through threats, and, later, running (unsuccessfully) for parliament so he‘ll be able to wring even more money out of the decent citizens of his country.
Many of the men point to Hollywood as their inspiration, explaining how they adopted many of the tough-guy styles and attitudes they saw in pictures in their youth - and even some of their torture and killing techniques. Score another one for American exports!
We’ve seen so many dramatized accounts of genocide and war crimes in movies and on TV that seeing these actual perpetrators re-enacting their atrocities takes the subject to a whole new level. And the depressing part is to realize that these are not just isolated cases, that the world is indeed full of such men eager to trumpet the evil they’ve done. It’s true that, near the end, Congo has what appears to be a breakdown of remorse, finally comprehending what it is he did all those years ago. But is it too little, too late? And how much of it is genuine and how much of it is staged? (These are “actors,” after all). Unfortunately for these men, redemption cannot be had for the price of a movie ticket.
It’s safe to say that “The Act of Killing” provided me with the most surreal experience I’ve ever had watching a movie. At times, I found myself thinking it must be some sort of put-on, an elaborate piece of street theater designed to trick the unwary into believing it’s real. Alas, it isn’t a hoax, and, for that reason alone, it emerges as one of the most deeply disturbing looks into the dark heart of humanity ever put on film.
on March 10, 2014
"The Act of Killing" received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and was recommended to me by a human rights colleague. While watching it, I could see why it was nominated - and recommended.
This fast-moving two-hour documentary centers around a genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s, in which a million or more artists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese were assassinated by government-sanctioned death squads in an effort to "exterminate" all "communists". It's worth noting that the ruling military regime at the time - along with its anti-communist effort - was proactively supported by the U.S. government.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent several years in Indonesia researching the genocide. In the process, he met Anwar Congo, a death squad leader who had personally killed as many as 1,000 alleged communists. Congo and his fellow assassins were proud, even boastful, of their actions. And so Oppenheimer ingeniously decided to allow the killers to tell their own stories on film. The result is this movie.
It's disturbing in that the killers who star in the movie are proud of their actions, and eager to share the gruesome details. While making "their" movie, they boastfully reenact various killings in order to show us just how clever and brutal they were.
One assassin, Anwar Congo's old friend, explains - or, rather, justifies - why he feels no guilt:
"'War crimes' are defined by the winners. I'm a winner. So I can make my own definition."
The concept of human rights is held in disdain in this culture, and is ridiculed. And the killers are regarded as heroes in their country.
Will this filmmaking exercise cause any of the killers to finally recognize and confront the wrongness of their actions? Watch the movie and see if you think so.
on March 6, 2014
How do you know if a documentary takes risks? If the final credits are full of people named "Anonymous."
The Act of Killing is about veterans of 1960s death squads — so-called "gangsters" backed by the Suharto regime and its CIA accomplices who kidnapped, tortured and killed an estimated 2.5 million people. But it's also about the current government's embrace of well-funded paramilitary gangs who use the half-buried memory of these murders to bully local communities.
The director gives a group of retired killers the chance to make a movie about their bloody escapades. In their youth, the killers copied their execution gimmicks from US gangster movies. It takes months for some of the men to wonder if documenting torture and assassination is such a bright idea. For at least one "gangster," a master of the garrote who claims to have personally killed 1,000 people, scenes of the crime prove increasingly unbearable. The killer crew is reminiscent of the reputed makeup of German death squads in Eastern Europe in the 1940s: sadists, drunks and moral cowards.
This is grim stuff, of course, when it's not farcical. But if you're optimistic, the film may persuade you that bloodbaths do not come easily, after all, except to the genuine psychopaths — and to the smooth politicians who license them. It takes extremely brave filmmakers and crews to work among such zombies. Meantime, the ghosts of genocide may, in their dread silence, ultimately possess more power than hired thugs to shape a nation's future. Dead, alive, or someplace in between, nobody ever really forgets.