In 1965, a failed coup d’état in Indonesia would lead to devastating repercussions. In a purge often described as the worst atrocity since the Holocaust, Government-approved death squads wiped out Communists and suspected sympathisers in a brutal six-month period. Exact numbers killed remain unverified, but estimates generally range between 500,000 and one million deaths.
The Government of the time remains in power in Indonesia today. The slaughter of 1965-1966 is considered an heroic and positive step in the country’s story. It is history as written by the victors.
The Act of Killing takes an unusual approach for a documentary. Instead of following the victims and survivors, it follows the perpetrators of the massacre. Given their status in Indonesia, these killers are not only happy to talk about their acts, they re-enact them for the cameras.
The main subject is Anwar Congo, a tall, genial older gentleman. Who also just happens to have been part of one of the most notorious death squads in North Sumatra. During the film, it is estimated that Congo killed around 1,000 people during the purge, all not only without punishment of any sort, but instead he is now treated as something of a war hero.
Congo tells of his past as a street thug selling black market movie tickets before being recruited into the death squads. The cinema remains a fond love of his – Elvis movies being a particular favourite. When Joshua Oppenheimer, the main director of The Act of Killing, proposes they make a movie about his death squad days, Congo happily agrees.
Along with a couple of other veteran perpetrators, plus some friendly modern paramilitaries, Congo proceeds to act out some of his killings, complete with costumes and gore make-up. In the process, he finally begins to question the righteousness of their actions nearly 50 years ago.
The result is a powerful piece of work. While the events themselves are deep in the past, the fact that Indonesian society has yet to recognise them as horrific gives the documentary its drive. It is only in acting out the killings, that some begin to realise that they were far crueler than those they executed.
In one particularly harrowing sequence, dozens of extras are recruited to recreate the burning of a village. The paramilitaries go about their roles with aplomb, but the extras playing the victims seem rattled by the experience. One little girl is told afterwards, “Your acting was great, but stop crying.” The sequence is made all the worse by one paramilitary telling tales of the death squad days happily, recounting how he would rape anyone he felt like. A special treat, he recalled, was when he got a 14-year-old girl. “This will be hell for you,” he would tell her, “but heaven for me.” His listeners all chuckle at the story.
Congo himself reveals he has been plagued with nightmares of his victims. His surface veneer remains stoic as he brings in his grandchildren to watch one scene they’ve filmed, waving off Oppenheimer’s protestations that it may be too violent for children. But cracks appear as things progress over the five-year filming period as he is forced to confront the morality of his actions. In watching a scene where he plays the victim, he says he can feel what the victim must’ve felt. Oppenheimer pipes up from behind the camera that, “your victims felt far worse.”
On the flipside is Adi Zulkadry, another death squad veteran. His attitude is very different. He is fully aware of his actions but, as he points out, war crimes are defined by the winners. When Congo confesses to Adi that he is starting to have trouble with guilt, Adi simply tells him to go get some “nerve medicine” to sort him out.
The film dovetails outwards, examining the current corrupt political process in Indonesia and the power of the paramilitary groups, particularly Pancasila Youth which boasts three million members nationwide. The question raised is one of systemic violence, of a society built on atrocity and what that means for a country trying not to face its own history.
This is powerful filmmaking, of confronting a horrible part of humanity. We are capable of terrible things and then somehow rationalising them or even celebrating them. The Act of Killing forces the audience to consider its own humanity. What acts have we done in the past and written off without thought? Or, worse, what are we capable of doing or accepting?
“Killing is the worst crime you can do,” Congo muses as he considers this. “So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty, find the right excuse.” The final sting comes in the credits, where all of the Indonesians who helped make the film are simply credited as, ‘anonymous’. Unlike the death squad members, they must stay in secret, lest they suffer punishment.
This release comes with a longer director’s cut on a separate disc. This version provides a bit more information on side characters like the heavy-set Herman Koto and adds further details around the making of the film-within-a-film, but ultimately undercuts the pacing and is inferior to the theatrical cut.
The director’s cut, however, also includes an audio commentary from main director Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog, who came on board after production as an executive producer along with Errol Morris. Both Herzog and Morris are also interviewed on a separate extra and there is also a question and answer session with Oppenheimer.
The former is a 12-minute promotional piece for Vice magazine, but the Q&A is more than 90 minutes long, with Oppenheimer going into great detail on the decade-long making of The Act of Killing and a myriad of fascinating background information. He is eloquent and thoughtful and it makes for an excellent companion piece to the film itself.
The Act of Killing is available as a single disc standard edition or two disc special edition from Madman.