Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous
Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin
Motion Picture Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes
I have watched a lot of films, I still love doing so, but I am too rarely surprised by them. I try not to prejudge, but often my knowledge of the basic plot, the cast and crew and my experience of the trailer provokes subconscious comparisons that can be hard to shake. It is the ‘curse’ of the film critic. However, when a film does come along like The Act of Killing it is a truly thrilling experience. It makes all of the painful, forced and insulting movies fade into the background and reaffirms my belief that film-making is the most essential modern art form. This film did that and more. It is a vital piece of cinema and without a doubt one of the best films that I have ever seen.
Joshua Oppenheimer spent a long time in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia producing this documentary. He immersed himself in the communities, learnt the language and he researched in great detail. The film that emerged from his exhaustive investigation is not what was imagined by him and is certainly not a traditional documentary, but it is sublime. He allowed the film to take shape around the subjects that he followed and their journey into darkness is profound and unexpected. Of them it is Anwar Congo, gangster, executioner and celebrity that the camera focuses on.
Anwar Congo was a low level gangster in 1965 in the city of Medan who transitioned from selling black market cinema tickets to leading a death squad that tortured and murdered thousands of citizens. The military overthrow of Sukarno’s left-leaning and anti-imperialist government set those wheels in motion. Congo and his buddies took what they learnt at the local picture house – lots of American gangster and cowboy movies – and applied it to the coup. They were feared, feted and promoted during a period of extreme violence. Today Congo and the others remain popular and proud of their murderous past. There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for Indonesia and the failure to deal head on with the genocide makes this film so powerful. Oppenheimer somehow manages to get Anwar Congo and cronies to discuss, debate and to re-enact their crimes.
1 million people were killed in 1 year by paramilitaries and gangsters as Suharto ousted Sukarno in 1965. To this day the military and the gangsters are still in power in Indonesia – hence Congo and his group of ageing death squad members remain popular (as “history is written by the winners” as one of them tells Oppenheimer). It is a unique and unsettling situation. This documentary captures that by giving those winners a voice. They describe their torture techniques and justify their actions. The current leaders applaud them and many encourage discussion of the ‘open secret’. They tell us many times that the word gangster actually means free man. Their perspective and the film scrambles your mind.
The cruelty and barbarism that is re-enacted by the participants during the documentary is very disturbing. Genocide is the blackest of holes. It is mankind with no humanity. To have it explained, debated and joked about is almost too much for the senses and yet this is The Act of Killing. Congo looks straight into the lens and describes how hacking people to pieces produced too much blood so strangulation became a preferred method of execution. At times the retired gangsters dress up and act out scenes of interrogation and torture for the camera. At those points the word surreal almost doesn’t cover it. One of the gang – fat, sweaty, dim-witted and menacing – takes female roles in the amateur productions and happily slaps on the make-up and piles into sequined dresses. Quite simply, I have never seen anything like this. Has anyone?
The journey that Anwar Congo goes on in contributing to The Act of Killing changes him. You can see it happening as, for example, he tells the director that he realizes how his squad’s use of torture took away victims’ dignity. Congo faces up to his past, tries to brazen his way through it, but can’t outrun the ghosts that he’s created. The final scene, where he revisits one of the slaughter houses, is almost too much for him to bear and it has stayed with me since I saw it more than a week ago. It is incredibly powerful. And Oppenheimer handles it so very well.
This is a strange, fascinating, dark and disturbing piece of cinema. The director deserves enormous credit for two specific achievements that I will close on. Firstly, the film breaks many film conventions with success. For example, Oppenheimer mixes the dry traditional documentary style with some jaw-dropping cinematic flashes of brilliance. Secondly, the film examines a topic that is extremely important, but rarely broached. That is the support for torture and genocide that citizens of war torn countries can readily supply. That is happening today in Syria, in Sudan and elsewhere. Military backed coups and dictatorships continue around the world to suck in all manner of local ‘gangsters’ to murder and maim in their cause. Sadly there are still men like Anwar Congo turning on their neighbours.