Straddling the line between documentary and narrative, exploitation and exposé, the haunting "The Act of Killing" sees filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer ask the leaders of the notorious Indonesian death squads, responsible for the mass murder of more than 1 million civilians in 1965-66, to recount their most brutal crimes, then allow them the opportunity to re-enact the acts through the lens of the Hollywood films that inspired them. The result is a thought-provoking, disquieting, and deeply disturbing film experiment that I feel I'm only beginning to process. I admit that while I'm writing this review now, I'll likely still be sifting through the myriad connotations of this densely layered film for weeks to come.
"The Act of Killing" begins with a brief bit of expository text filling in the necessary background: in 1965, a coup was staged to overthrow the government of Indonesia, creating a military dictatorship. Any persons opposing the dictatorship were accused of being a communist, and immediately put to death. The armies created paramilitaries, run by local gangsters, to carry out these killings. These groups remain in power to this day. Aside from this brief summary, the film avoids delving too deeply into the history, choosing instead to act as meditation on (as the title states) the act of killing, how such atrocities could be committed, and how the perpetrators of these deeds live with themselves afterward.
Oppenheimer, along with co-director Christine Cynn, interacts with dozens of the men who participated in the genocide, but the main subjects are Anwar Congo and Herman Kato. Congo was an executioner who alone killed nearly 1,000 people, mostly by strangling them with wire (he explains early on that he chose this method after beating his victims to death proved to make too much of a mess), while Kato acted as the leader of a paramilitary group which still holds power today. Seemingly delighted to be sharing their violent legacy, Congo and Kato call upon their knowledge of Hollywood Westerns, noir gangster films, and musicals, slipping easily into the archetypes that proved so influential to them as young men. In their minds, they're simply recounting the zany misadventures they got up to in their youth. Reality and fiction blur as the cameras observe Congo and Kato cast and rehearse their film, employing the aid of old friends and villagers whose relatives were likely the very ones whose deaths are being recreated in front of them.
What's perhaps most shocking is the way these men appear to have no remorse, largely because they are still revered as heroes in their country. As one notes, "History is written by the winners. And we are the winners." They talk freely, often boastfully, of the countless horrific acts they committed: at one point a paramilitary goon reminisces about raping 14-year-old girls in the process of wiping out entire villages. An appallingly clear conscience seems to be a characteristic shared by most of the men. But Congo offhandedly admits that he is haunted by nightmares when he goes to sleep each night.
Executive produced by documentary-film legends Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, "The Act of Killing" has stirred up a fair amount of controversy since it premiered, as critics questioned the morality of the film and its directors. After all, it allows murderers to quite literally glorify the horrific violence they committed. But throughout the film, we see only bits and pieces of the film within a film that's being creating. The scenes seem to grow increasingly hallucinatory and hellish as Congo attempts to translate his nightmares to film, staging impressionistic scenes of decapitation and stylized bloodshed.
It all builds to a scene in which Congo plays one of his own victims, and it's apparently too much for him to bear. It's in this section that Oppenheimer's intentions become most apparent. Speaking one-on-one to the director later on, Congo explains that in those moments, he was overwhelmed because he felt what his victims felt. Of course, Oppenheimer points out, Congo is acting for a film. His victims were not pretending; they were truly facing the realization that they were about to die.
Though Congo and Kato are in charge of the film they're creating, Oppenheimer is a skilled enough director to make sure that they never seize control of the narrative of the film he's set out to make. And he clearly has a purpose: it's telling that the local crew members who worked on "The Act of Killing" chose to help the director, but are credited anonymously, worried about any potential repercussions they might face after the film's release. Raising just as many questions as it seeks to answer, Oppenheimer's film is uncomfortable to watch, but not easily dismissed, or forgotten.