“The Act of Killing” is one of the most devastating documentaries to come out in recent memory. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and made over a span of 10 years with the help of various anonymous Indonesian informants, the documentary focuses on the Western-backed mass killings of Communists and ethnic Chinese under the Suharto regime in the mid 1960s. ‘The Act of Killing’ takes a different inflection from most documentaries on genocide, focusing on the perpetrators rather than the victims to relate the full gravity of what transpired.
In Indonesia (especially North Sumatra), death squad leaders are lauded as heroes of the nation for their actions following the failed Communist military coup in 1965. government-backed paramilitaries like the heavily featured Pancasila Youth, an organization that currently has over 3 million members, are the contemporary manifestations of the death squads that facilitated the genocide of between 1-3 million. Their deep involvement with government ministers and their blanket influence over the populace reveal a complex system in which almost every sector of society is complicit with the atrocities that occurred. Throughout the documentary, Oppenheimer deftly weaves in and out of the killers' memories, fleshing out their war crimes and putting their base humanity on full display.
The documentary focuses on three players from this obscured time in Indonesian history: the lanky executioner Anwar Congo, his potbellied subordinate Herman Koto and Congo’s ex-partner-in-crime Adil Zulkadry. They are asked by the director to recreate the killings from their ‘glory days’ for the camera. The group then goes on to gleefully reenact their past evils, recruiting locals to act as communists and staging macabre and over-the-top set-pieces that defy comprehension and veer into the surreal.
Tautly edited and mixing expertly composed static shots with handheld cinema verité moments, the cinematography thrusts you into the killer’s reality and subsumes you into the visual spectacle on display throughout the film. From the confusingly in-drag Herman Koto to the visages of idyllic Indonesian landscapes and the pained despair of Chinese shopkeepers harassed by paramilitaries, there is an eerie beauty that pervades the film and creates a disconcerting but entrancing aura.
Anwar Congo is the main personality on screen, grounding the narrative and acting as its moral barometer. Oppenheimer layers the various facets of Anwar’s thoughts on his crimes against humanity, painting a full-bodied portrait of an ego exposed to self-reflection. His boorishness and nonchalance about the murders he committed can only partially conceal the doubt that has been brewing inside his psyche for decades, a psyche pierced by nightmares of his victim’s lifeless eyes.
"The Act of Killing" is disturbing but necessary viewing, an epic and sobering treatment on the ambivalence of history and the extraordinary capacity for humanity to gloss over and construct their own realities.