REVIEW: The Act of Killing [2012]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: November 1st, 2012 (Indonesia)
Studio: Final Cut for Real / Drafthouse Films
Director(s): Joshua Oppenheimer

“They proudly told us stories about what they did”

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing can be described as nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s a one-of-a-kind document that gets into the mind of madmen with the blood of genocide on their hands by displaying their hubris, remorselessness, and cavalier attitudes firsthand. Oppenheimer doesn’t go down a laundry list of scholars, victims, or survivors for floating head commentary to set the stage or vilify evil—he lets the murderers themselves do it with their permission and moreover their satisfaction. With soundbytes such as “Relax and Rolex” describing the lifestyle of an Indonesian gangster and “War crimes are defined by the winner and we were the winners” to explain their lack of reprimand in the international world, no account of government abuse is more captivating, sickening, or enlightening than this.

The background is as follows: a 1965 military coup led by Major General Suharto overthrew Indonesian President Sukarno’s rule to enforce a dictatorship out to purge the country of its Communist heathens. They wielded that term as a blanket label for anyone they did not like—including Chinese locals—by bringing in the accused, interrogating them, and eventually killing them with relish. Unwilling to get their own hands dirty, however, the leaders hired gangsters to deliver “justice”, turning young movie theater scalpers into death squads with carte blanche to clean the streets. Self-proclaimed to have been raised on the violence and sadism depicted in the Hollywood films eventually banned from Indonesian cinemas, these gangsters sought to be more ruthless in their killing before growing into revered monsters and political leaders themselves.

Oppenheimer caught wind of these details while researching another film with co-director Chirstine Cynn, soon finding himself face-to-face with the most infamous executioner of them all: Anwar Congo. Proud to have close to one thousand murders to his name, Congo goes one step further than simply allowing himself to be candid about his past. He invites the director into his home, introduces him to Paramilitary leader and friend Herman Koto, and agrees to reenact exactly how they expunged the Communist scum from their country. It becomes an elaborate to-do wherein it isn’t enough to simply visit the venues of their crimes—they decide it would be better to dress up, recruit actors, and create their own movie that would let their tale of victory stand the test of time for the history books.

But while such an enterprise appears farcical and in poor taste, Oppenheimer finds a way to cut it into an unparalleled look at horror. These men talk with glee about how they raped the beautiful women; recounting the “deliciousness” of the 14-year olds they gave hell to for a “little slice of heaven” for themselves. We learn how newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik fingered everyone Congo and his cronies should kill next, admitting he would do whatever was necessary to incriminate those he brought in. The Pancasila Youth is introduced as a sort of terrorist training organization for future military leaders of entitled monsters with power-hungry egos and gangster mentalities. And that word itself—gangster— is worn as a badge of honor, proving they are nothing more than “free men” living as they choose.

We see rampant corruption as Koto runs for office to reap the spoils of a larger extortion pool than he already has. Journalist Soaduon Siregar argues with the executioners that he never knew what they did despite all saying they never tried to hide it. And Congo’s right-hand man Adi Zulkadry arrives to give his pragmatic, yet disgusting opinions on the whole endeavor. Adi admits what they did was wrong, knows they were the cruel ones despite telling the world the Communists were, and feels no ill-effects from his actions because in his mind it was dog-eat-dog war. He’s unapologetic, willing to participate in Congo’s farce, but wonders if doing so will taint their legacy unnecessarily. Why reignite the flames? Why voluntarily admit to being wrong? Not that he wouldn’t himself: he does so often and proudly.

Filmed over the course of six years from 2005-2011, Oppenheimer has done something that may never be replicated again. (Not that other totalitarian dictators and guilt-free murderers don’t possess the desire for fame and notoriety going on camera can provide.) You will not believe your ears listening to these men recount stories as though everything was a party and taking human lives was a harmless game. Yes Congo admits to having nightmares and needing drugs to sometimes quiet them, but he still goes on the rooftop where he slaughtered hundreds and shows how tying wire around a victim’s neck produced less blood to clean than simple beat-downs. He dyes his gray hair black, dons a pink cowboy hat, and dances with attractive women as though he was a savior freeing the Communists from this mortal coil.

Reprehensible to listen to an outsider’s account, it’s exponentially more so hearing it firsthand with pride. Beyond the play-acting, confessions, and celebrity worship, though, is an ending that absolutely floored me. You almost feel for Congo after reenacting a massive slaughter with fire and crying children—creepily ending in claps and laughter—because he begins to realize what he’s done. We then watch him play the victim with Koto fitting a wire around his neck, culminating in Congo’s visible shaking. His eventual tears and dry heaving at the thought of his crimes come next in an unforgettable sequence mirroring one he smiled through at the film’s start. It humanizes him, yes, but doesn’t earn our forgiveness. Instead his humanization makes our blood boil as we revel in the pain we hope he’ll feel for an eternity in hell.

[1] A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing. Photo credit by Anonymous. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
[2] A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing. Photo credit by Anonymous. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
[3] A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

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