Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
“[…] The Act of Killing is a shocking, surreal, and stunning original documentary in which resolutely unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are invited to re-enact their crimes in the style of the movies they love.” (931, Jason Wood, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Jason Wood has got this spot on – The Act of Killing is shocking and surreal while at the same time one of the most stunning documentaries I have seen in recent years. It’s such a surreal film that I was constantly having to remind myself that it was actually a documentary rather than a drama and the events being portrayed were events that had actually taken place. The acts committed by these death squads were horrific and their re-enactments only make them more so. I knew nothing about the Indonesian genocide so it was kind of a learning curve for me to watch and my view is probably warped seeing as my introduction to the history of the subject comes from the perpetrators.
“Proud of their deeds – which included the burning and butchering of entire families – and never punished, Anwar and his pals are delighted when Joshua asks them to re-enact these murders for a documentary” (931) I couldn’t quite get my head around the subject matter. You have large groups of men going around re-enacting the horrific crimes of their past and no-one seems to be batting an eye. I know all films, including documentaries, are edited to tell the story that the director wants us to know but there seemed to be a remarkable lack of any distention among the rest of the Indonesian people. They seem okay to go along with this bizarre filmic experience but then this could be due to the fact that the former death squad members still wield an immense power over their every day lives. There is a real sense of the mafia around them – with visits to local shops demanding money in order to fund the film, the owners handing it over without question. The whole film is a bit strange but things really get weird when they begin production on the re-enactments. For some reason one of the men, Herman Koto, always ends up dressed as a woman in these outrageous costumes – and he actually makes quite an attractive woman!
I was horrified by the laid-back and casual approach everyone had to discussing the mass murder of an entire country of people. It was really quite disturbing to watch at times. Not only were the main group happy to discuss their crimes but they were also all so proud of their actions. The first part that really turned my stomach was watching Anwar Congo demonstrate his new, more efficient method of cutting off someone’s head, at the same site where he did indeed remove a number of people’s heads. Anwar and Herman are the two people Oppenheimer focuses on and the audience gets to watch the moments when their actions finally seem to sink in. Throughout the film Anwar’s appearance changes a number of times,as he routinely dyes his hair in an attempt to look younger and how he looked during his time with the death squads.
“[…] as the reconstructions are played out, Anwar finally feels stirrings of unease and remorse.” (931) The change in Anwar is the most, dramatic isn’t the right word because it isn’t dramatic in any way, but maybe profound is more accurate. It made for uncomfortable viewing for me, as I didn’t want to feel any sympathy for this man who had so callously dispatched people, and enjoyed doing it at the time. But there were moments where you couldn’t help but feel for him. The first real moment you see an awareness come over him is during a re-enactment of a beheading in which he is the victim. He literally put himself in the shoes of his victims and finally had some sense of what it must have been like. I say some sense because even then he knew he was safe and that nothing was going to happen to him whereas the reality for his victims was the complete opposite – they knew without a doubt that these were their final moments on earth and nothing they could say would persuade Anwar to release them. At the end of the film we see a completely different Anwar – no longer is he the cocky aging war criminal but rather a sad old man who ages before your eyes.
“Oppenheimer eschews historical context or archival footage, instead focusing on a few individuals as they gradually come to recognize the abhorrence of their crimes.” (931) The Act of Killing is an incredibly powerful documentary and well worth watching even if only in acknowledgement of the horrific acts the Indonesian people were subjected to, from the mouths of the perpetrators themselves. But it’s not by any means easy viewing and nor should it be – you have to keep reminding yourself that these are real people who really inflicted this kind of suffering on their fellow countrymen. I highly recommend it to anyone … and the companion piece The Look of Silence, told from the perspective of the victims and the surviving family members.