By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we attempt to shed new light on our favorite misunderstood and often overlooked films. After some time away, we return with Joshua Oppenheimer’s bewildering and gut-wrenching documentary, The Act of Killing.
A vicious and unyielding combination of ultra-violence, incongruity, and troubling indifference, The Act of Killing recounts the Indonesian slaughter of over one million so-called Communists in 1965-1966 , and is told through the unabashed recollections of former death squad leaders who now enjoy the protection of high-ranking government positions. To avoid a feature of endless and potentially mind numbing talking heads, Oppenheimer allows these men to create their own fantastical re-enactments of their atrocities. As if that wasn’t already begging for controversy, the killers are also permitted (and encouraged) to adapt their favorite film genre into the re-enactment. Western, Noir, and yes, even Musical are infused into these scenes, which more times than not, will leave you shaking your head with an agape jaw.
The film not only toes the line of human empathy, but also of the documentary genre itself. Blending historical fact, a rather objective and admirable interview style, and fantastically surreal re-enactments, Oppenheimer effectively widens the scope of what we view as traditional documentation. This approach is what attracted esteemed documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog as the film’s executive producers: Morris, the hands behind some of the genre’s most treasured works (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), eloquently stated to the New York Times:
“Documentary is not about form, a set of rules that are either followed or not, it’s an investigation into the nature of the real world, into what people thought and why they thought what they thought.”
While Herzog’s draw to the film was allegedly out of a similar belief, it’s also a little difficult to avoid the suspicion that his interest was due to Oppenheimer nearly perfecting a form of documentation Herzog had fumbled at for as long as I can remember. (I know I’ll catch some flack for that but as I’ve stated in the past, Herzog is — in my very humble opinion — an overrated hack. For the sake of brevity, we can all discuss this at length in the comments sections, but yeah… the worst.)
Our main players, on both sides of the film, are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, former thugs turned omnipotent leaders of Sumatra’s most feared death squads. Together with friends, we watch these men brag on about some of their most heinous memories of executing thousands of people suspected of Communism. Though many are transcribed into these stylized and unsettling re-enactments, observing their nonchalance in the unscripted interviews is equally bone-chilling. Anwar, in the same breath, will go from explaining some of his methods of murder to performing an improvised dance routine. At one point, the men go so far as to not just compare themselves to the Nazis, but claim that they themselves were much more sadistic and thus, more entertaining. While the lines of reality are often blurry, (mostly due to their rather unhealthy obsession with cinema, which leaves us to wonder when they begin to act and when they’ve stopped), it is obscenely clear that for the most part, these men have no remorse for what they’ve done.
Though each of the revisited actions performed by these horrific men are beyond difficult to digest, there is one particular re-enactment (shot in a classic film noir style) that possibly reveals an aspect of Oppenheimer’s motivation in this unusual method, leading his subject to some form of personal clarity. It is this scene in which Anwar Congo plays one of his victims, and as the scene becomes increasingly more intense, Anwar becomes quite emotional and states that he cannot go on filming. Later, in an interview with the director, Anwar confesses his guilt and begins to questions his actions.
He leads Oppenheimer to the rooftop where he and his team would torture and dispatch of their victims. In either a truly jaw-dropping scene of self realization, or an Oscar-caliber performance, Congo walks around the roof top, often convulsing and gagging, while walking the director through the violations that took place. For the first time, Anwar displays actual guilt and disgust over what he’s done, though we cannot help but wonder if it’s genuine, or if Anwar has decided that he’s found the perfect ending to his movie. And it is of course here, where Oppenheimer brilliantly chooses to close the film.
Five More Things that will make you wonder why you’ve not seen The Act of Killing:
5) 49 crewmembers, including a director and cinematographer, appear as “Anonymous” in the film’s credit roll. This is due to the fear of retaliation from members of the death squads, who still enjoy complete freedom in northern Sumatra.
4) The original concept for the film was to focus on the families and friends of the victims. However, after the interviews began, many of Oppenheimer’s subjects were arrested and/or went missing as the former death squad leaders still hold high rankings in the corrupt Indonesian government. As these events took place, Oppenheimer became more interested in the stories of the death squad soldiers and decided to change the direction of the film.
3) Before obtaining a basic license to kill, Anwar Congo and his associates dealt in black market movie tickets, which sprouted their love (and their somewhat unhealthy fascination) with American cinema.
2) The scenes of the Pancasila Youth extorting money from local shop owners are completely real. Oppenheimer has said that he re-paid the shop owners after the deed was done, under the guise of staying behind to have release forms signed.
1) To this day, the massacre that took place in Indonesia is widely accepted as a positive act. Though no records appear in the history books, the participants are generally considered heroes. Extortion, election rigging, and intense abuse of human rights is still an expected part of daily life inside of the Indonesian government.