The Act of Killing, a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer, starts us out with some very minimal historical background. In 1965, the government of Indonesia was overthrown by a military coup. The new dictatorship, with the support of the CIA, initiated a purge of everyone it deemed to be communist—liberals, academics, ethnic Chinese, in fact anyone thought to be critical of the state. Close to two million people are said to have been killed in the mass actions of 1965 and ‘66. Much of the killing was done by paramilitary groups, along with street criminals who were well paid to do the regime’s dirty work. The film focuses on a group of gangsters in Sumatra, now in late middle age and enjoying the benefits of being considered heroes for what they did. We’re not told how the director, Oppenheimer, was able to gain the confidence of these men, but it’s obvious he did, because they open up to him with complete candor. The idea of the movie, as these gangsters understand it, is that they have a chance now to dramatize the killings they took part in, staging reenactments of the torture, murders, and massacres as they remember them.
The title The Act of Killing has a special meaning here, because these men were big fans of American films, particularly crime pictures. And it seems that in order to kill people, they fantasized being characters in movies, with all the costumes and the lingo, reveling in the sense of power and sadism.
It’s remarkable how frankly and even proudly these men discuss their murders. One of the stunning points made by the film is that in a society in which mass killing was rewarded, a society that has not admitted wrongdoing, there is no sense of shame about these actions. Instead they are celebrated. Central to the film is a man named Anwar Congo, one of the more famous of the killers, now a gray-haired man in his 60s, a grandfather with a winning smile. Anwar is honored by a huge youth-oriented paramilitary organization, still powerful in Indonesia, and we get a taste of the corrupt values of that group’s leader along with other political figures who helped organize the terror but had other people, like Anwar, do the actual killing. At one point, a famous massacre of a village is reenacted under the approving eye of a visiting official.
In a surreal touch that has to be seen to be believed, the old gangsters stage a musical number with elaborate costumes around the song “Born Free,” as a celebration of their supposedly heroic story. One of the men, however, is a kind of philosopher, almost a character from Dostoevsky, who reminds the others that the truth is ugly, and that the facts prove that the Communists were not nearly as cruel as their killers. Yet this man claims he has never felt any guilt.
It is Anwar, however, who gradually over the duration of the film gains a certain awareness of reality. After he plays a person being strangled in a reenactment, the identification forces on him a vicarious sense of horror that seems to threaten his sanity.
We have seen documentaries about crimes against humanity from the point of view of the victims, and the accusing conscience of the world. Here, with an incredible power, we hear the stories from the perpetrators. Instead of being able to distance ourselves and call these people monsters, we are compelled to witness how human beings can allow themselves to do anything and justify it in their minds. The truth can sometimes break through, as it does for Anwar, but the power of collective denial is very great indeed.
Sometimes it’s too easy for a film critic to indulge in superlatives. But in this case I’m going to. The Act of Killing is one of the most important films of our time.