The Act of Killing

Film Title: The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Starring: Haji Anif

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 115 min

Fri, Jun 28, 2013, 00:00


By now, hardened film fans will likely have happened on The Act of Killing, a winner at Berlin and a film Werner Herzog has described as the most frightening and surreal of the past decade. We can only chime along with this praise: within minutes, this highly decorated demi-documentary has established its credentials as the most extraordinary, bizarre, terrifying, unsettlingly hilarious, compelling work of this or perhaps any other year.

It might easily be called The Act of Cognitive Dissonance. Director Joshua Oppenheimer (The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase), a former protege of WR: Mysteries of the Organism director Dusan Makavejev and a graduate of St Martin’s, has already garnered a reputation for blurring the discrete boundaries between reality and invention. Waters, however, have seldom seemed muddier than they do here.

A written prologue provides the chilling background. In 1965, an unholy alliance of army leaders, paramilitaries, youth groups and thugs came together to purge Indonesia of Communist influence, ethnic Chinese and anybody not to their liking. The 500,000 who died in the massacres (leading up to President Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship) are never mentioned in history books and are rarely spoken of in the West, which helped to bankroll the killings.

The film’s inspired conceit is to allow the killers to recreate their own versions of 1965-66 for the camera. The results are . . . well, let’s just say that Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime would have difficulty dead-lifting his jaw from the floor afterwards.

Much of The Act of Killing’s oddness comes from the men’s relationship with film. Some of the murderers are movie buffs whose primary historical gripe with the Communists was that they were an impediment to watching Elvis movies. Time and again they describe themselves as gangsters, a word they suggest means “free men”. Time and again, they speak of themselves as heroes of an ongoing action film.

Their politics exist as comically Orwellian doublespeak. Democracy is chaos. There is too much talk about “human rights”. The Geneva Convention was written by the winners and must cede to the “Jakarta Convention”. Why should they be punished? Nobody punished Bush for Guantanamo or the Americans for the genocide of native populations. Why shouldn’t they take? All Indonesian political rallies are populated by people who are paid to be there. Why shouldn’t they rape? Fourteen-year-olds are “delicious”.

One contemporary minister leads a youth group to burn down a village on camera, only to address the director with a mixed message: these scenes are too violent to reflect what the group stands for, but they should be left in the final cut to illustrate the violence the group stands for.

These political views are rather less disturbing than the lunatic representations they produce of their actions. One kitschy musical number makes for particularly disquieting spectacle.

At the heart of the film we find Anwar Congo, a charming old gent who has, since his part in the massacre, resorted to marijuana, alcohol, ecstasy, and cha-cha-cha to forget the awful things that he’s seen and done. He chastises his grandchildren for injuring a bird – a “sweet little duck” – then shows them recreations of granddad’s old-school wire-strangling method. We’re given practical advice about genocide: wear thick trousers and a small check pattern. We’ll keep that in mind. Forever more.

Unforgettable. A no-fooling work of genius.