Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2013) is a surreal documentary about a dark time in Indonesia’s history. In 1965 to ’66, an anti-communist purge occurred all throughout the country, as a new president was elected and the country’s Communist Party was decimated. Death squads were responsible for killing one million communists and ethnic Chinese. The focus of this documentary, ex-death squad leader Anwar Congo, was personally responsible for the deaths of approximately 1000 people in Medan, North Sumatra. Nowadays, Congo is a loving grandfather who leads a fairly quiet life in comparison. The film follows the director’s challenge to Congo to represent his activities in the death squads on film, in any manner he chooses.
This documentary is very difficult to watch. There were moments where I felt physically ill; specifically, whilst watching Congo and his friends bragging about how many people they were responsible for murdering, and the methods in which they committed their crimes. The frank manner in which they discuss their previous activities is actually quite shocking. I almost couldn’t believe it at first. The people in this film are proud about what they’ve done, and they’re very honest about it. It’s beyond understanding that Congo and others haven’t been brought to justice – until you learn (very briefly) about the political issues that allowed their actions to be ignored and gone unpunished in the past, and celebrated in the media in the present.
The film follows Anwar Congo, and also his friend Herman Koto, who is a local gangster and paramilitary leader in the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) – a military-style organisation that sprung up out of the death squads in the 60s, and are often involved in illegal activities. Koto regularly serves as the comic relief in darker moments, being a naturally exuberant larger guy who often dresses in drag during the reenactments of crimes. We also briefly meet Adi Zulkadry, a fellow ex-death squad leader whose take on the philosophy of war crimes marks one of the more sinister moments in the film. This group of characters are all very interesting in their own way, and we are given quite a good amount of insight into each of their psychologies. I believe this film works best as an insight into the psychology of evil acts. Each character is more than happy to explain what they did and why they did it, which makes this documentary a very unique watch indeed.
Where The Act of Killing is also unique is the film-within-a-film element. Oppenheimer challenges Congo to re-create his exploits in the 60s through the medium of film, in order to fully represent his history and have a record of it for future generations. Initially, Congo chooses to construct scenes by borrowing from his favourite films of the Wild West, and from noir films, to tell a straightforward story. As the film goes deeper into his psyche, and into the nightmares that have resulted from his past, the representation of his exploits becomes more symbolic and surreal. The reenactments are, by and large, incredibly bizarre, and can range from disgusting and graphic to incredibly beautiful.
This film is also notable for its editing and cinematography. The transition between the documentary format and the offbeat reenactments of interrogating and killing communists makes for compelling viewing. The director’s cut of the film is roughly two and a half hours long, and there were moments that probably could have been trimmed down in order to have a more streamlined film. However, I felt that even the moments that could have been cut added to the overall impact of the film. As a character study of Anwar Congo and friends, even the duller moments are an insight into their current-day responses to their previous crimes.
I’m not going to include any spoilers in this review, but I will say that by the end of the film, we see a different side of Anwar Congo. The only parallel that I can use to describe it would be the context of a counselling relationship. As he gets more and more of his history out of his system, as he is confronted with his past through the reenactments and purges more and more of his feelings surrounding the death squads, a new awareness of himself emerges. Initially, Congo speaks so freely and happily about murdering people, gleefully demonstrating how he used a wire for the best method of killing. There are no glimpses of remorse. However, also at the beginning of the film, Congo chides his grandson for breaking the leg of a chicken and tells him to apologise to the chicken and treat it more gently in future. By the end of the film, these two sides of his personality begin to integrate in a captivating way.
I have a number of criticisms, however. I wish that the film had included more historical context for the death squads and general political turmoil of Indonesia in the 60s. I studied that era of history in my Indonesian language classes at school, so I was aware of the context of the death squads in Indonesian history already. But it would have been interesting to hear Anwar Congo’s and Herman Koto’s perspective on that, and I think it would have helped to place the story within a larger political whole. The death squads happened everywhere, and to remind the audience that this is just one perspective on them would have been a very salient point to make.
I also feel that it’s problematic to give people like this, people who are clearly unapologetic for their crimes against humanity, a soapbox on which to boast about their exploits. I am a huge fan of freedom of speech, but I wonder where the line is drawn between giving these people freedom of expression, versus being completely disrespectful to the victims of the ’65-’66 massacres and their families. It is of some consolation that the film has brought attention to a campaign for the government of Indonesia to apologise to those affected by the massacres – however, as the ex-death squad leaders in the film clearly state, that’s the government saying sorry, and they don’t have to personally have anything to do with it.
The Act of Killing is an unpleasant, visceral experience. Not that it’s a bad film, or that the quality is poor – quite the contrary. It is a stunning film. It’s just that the content and characters are so reprehensible that they make you feel ill. This film is not for the faint of heart or stomach. I’m usually okay with violence and gore, but the ways in which Congo and his colleagues brag about killing people is sickening. By the end of this film, you’ll feel like a wrung out sponge. It is a truly amazing work on the psychology of evil and is essential viewing for anyone interested in human rights on a global scale.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch the film at Amazon!