“The Act of Killing” – A Stunning Testament of the Cinema’s Power to Expose Truth
‘Paramilitary Troops’, ‘Rebels’, ‘Freedom Fighters’ are the ascertained names of twentieth century’s mass murderers, who have killed millions of innocent people to justify the political stance of their country. After the end of Second World War, our world — under the eyes of democratic countries — has witnessed mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, southern Sudan, Bosnia, Congo, Darfur, North Korea, Indonesia, former Yugoslavia and in Sri Lanka. Most of the films or documentaries about mass killings try to find some moral core to showcase the ghastly, institutionalized killings. Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is about the 1960’s mass murders in Indonesia, but it has no moral or emotional core because the mainly focused man here is a genial grandfather-like ‘Anwar Congo’ – a man with an unspeakable past. You might have never come across a morally complex and emotionally overpowering documentary like “Act of Killing” (2013). Of course, when the daring film-maker Werner Herzog (executive producer) himself says, “this film is the most frightening and most surreal he’s seen in at least a decade”, you need to prepare yourself for a nerve-wrecking experience. Claude Lanzmann’s holocaust documentary, “Shoah” is considered to be the supreme testament to movie’s capacity for confrontation. If there is any other documentary, which can be named alongside, it is definitely “Act of Killing” – a study of genocide like none other.
Cinema has only studied mass murders, after the failure of that murderous regime and only through the eyes of the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows neither of the methods. He directly interviews the boastful Indonesian death squad leaders. These punk gangsters installed the right-wing dictatorship in Indonesia and for the last four and a half decades, these leaders are using them as well as paramilitary organizations to suppress the people and to unofficially carry out the deaths. The lean, sharply-dressed Anwar Congo and his crew of ageing gangsters are given a task, before the start of the documentary: to re-enact their murderous acts in an elaborate scale (by using prosthetics, soundtrack and lush location shootings) in whatever genre they like. What surprising is that, these guys have taken the task very seriously by filming their atrocities with the aid of Hollywood Gangster genre and surrealistic musical numbers. Anwar and his co were tricked by saying that their past acts would bring inspiration to Indonesian youths, but, what these guys go through in the shooting phase gives us a contemplating study of a corrupted society, where ministers embrace killers in public meetings and media men gleefully says, “One wink and they were dead!” Herman Koto is Anwar’s fellow executioner. For recreating certain acts, Herman bizarrely dresses in a drag and lip-syncs to songs. There is brief musical number, where they are portrayed as liberating angels, sending the cursed communists to idyllic after life. Adi Zulkadry was another member of death squad, who, unlike Anwar has no nightmares about his victims. He lives happily with his family without feeling anything for the families, he butchered. Adi gleefully remembers the time he went on a killing rampage, stabbing every Chinese he met on the street. There are also times, where these gangsters feel bad about making this movie. They were concerned that it would bring out a bad part of history, which the Indonesian government still pretends never happened. Towards the end, Congo watches a scene, where he plays the role of a suspected communist. After watching this fake-torture sequence, with his grandsons, Congo exhibits a little regret for the suffering of real men. As I said previously, “Act of Killing” is not about the mass killings of 1965. Director Johua Oppenheimer, through these absurdly acted scenes, tries to put us inside the heads of these incomprehensible men. Joshua doesn’t want us to classify them simply as ‘monsters.’ Werner Herzog explains this well: “Meeting the perpetrators makes it obvious that there is no monster. They are still human. They are still very, very human. We have to somehow accept that within the boundaries of humanity, crimes of that magnitude are still possible. They are not completely exotic. They’re not foreign to human nature. That’s a hard thing to swallow.” Oppenheimer deftly establishes the killers’ relationship with the Pancasila Youth – paramilitary organization with 3 million members – governors and even vice-president of Indonesia. The non-judgmental camera catches all the moments, some of them are laced with the blackest humor. For example, the leader of Pancasila Youth, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, gives a rousing speech to his men and in the next sequence he plays golf, trash talking to the female caddy. In another meeting, before praying, he briefly talks about a woman’s kinky sexual acts. Herman Koto (stands in local elections) watches Barack Obama’s gestures to prepare an inspirational speech. Congo watches himself on TV, in which he re-enacts a strangulation scene. Instead of reflecting on his crime, he just thinks he shouldn’t have worn white pants. Joshua was from Texas. He previously made a labor documentary titled, “The Globalization Tapes.” While making the story about labor unions (in Indonesia), he heard whispered stories about the massacres of 1965 and 66. He decided to make a documentary on this subject; however, none of the victims came forward publicly to tell their tales, since many of the murderers hold powerful positions in community. When Joshua approached the killers, strange things happened. Instead of concealing their crimes, most of them openly boasted and were so eager to re-enact those crimes. All of the Indonesian crew in “The Act of Killing” is credited as “Anonymous.” Many accuses that this documentary disrespects those who died in the massacre. I think it does exactly the opposite. By showing the killers’ self-mythologization, it connects the viewers to the process by which the totalitarian regimes transmute the truths. “The Act of Killing” makes us to reflect on how we acknowledge killing in our own culture. The pride these men take in murders comes from the culture that celebrates their violent act. So, this is not a story about mass murderers or about the present Indonesia. It is rather a nonjudgmental study of evil – totally unexpected, valuable and astonishing in every single frame.