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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF12 Review: The Act of Killing

I’ve never seen anything quite like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrageous, defiantly different documentary about gangsters in Indonesia who killed millions of people around the time of the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, making a movie touting their “heroic” exploits. Really, you need to see this movie. You just do. It’s one of the most compelling, riveting docs I’ve ever seen; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ll bet you haven’t either.

Oppenheimer started out to make a movie about the survivors of the massacres, filming for three years and even living in a village of survivors for over a year, according to press notes. But the filmmakers found that they faced constant dangers while trying to film the story of the survivors, and they feared compromising the survivors’ safety in the current political climate, which is controlled, essentially, by the same people who perpetrated the killings. Oppenheimer decided the answers he sought lay in trying to understand the perspective not of the victims themselves, but of the people who openly boasted of slaughtering countless people in the name of “cleansing” the country of “Communists” — which appears, in the context of Indonesia, to roughly mean “anyone who fights for the rights of workers to not be brutalized and exploited.” And interestingly, he found that once they shifted focus to the gangsters — who in their country, perhaps through intimidation as much as anything, are lauded as heroes, not killers — suddenly officials were more than accommodating. Thus was born the beginnings of the film that would become The Act of Killing.

Oppenheimer had begun a few years earlier by filming The Globalization Tapes, a documentary about the militarized control of plantations outside of Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city, and the ongoing oppression of the plantation workers and the destruction of any attempts to unionize and protect workers. It was while filming The Globalization Tapes that the seed of an idea for The Act of Killing was planted, as Oppenheimer struggled to understand how the perpetrators of intimidation, killings and terror could brag openly about their violent acts without fear of reprisal.

His path along the way of trying to understand what happened in Indonesia led him ultimately to Medan, where he met Anwar Congo, the leader of the most notorious post-overthrow death squad, and his protege, a round-bellied, jovial chap called Herman. Once small-time gangsters emulating their big-screen idols and scalping movie tickets, Anwar, Herman and their friends found themselves recruited as death squad enforcers after the takeover, leading the killings of suspected Communists. Anwar himself brags openly of killing thousands with his own hands while Herman smiles and nods proudly, chiming in as needed to make sure his own adventures in the killing of his countrymen don’t go unrecognized.

Oppenheimer decided that his best opportunity for capturing the truthful insight he sought was to allow the killers to tell their own stories however they wanted, and what is revealed about these men — and, by extension, about the capacity of human beings to be cruel to each other in the name of power, greed and control — is stunning its brutal, unflinching honesty. What makes the situation surrounding the post-takeover genocide in Indonesia unique is that Anwar Congo and his cohorts have never been held accountable for the slaughter they perpetrated; there have been no apologies, no restitution for the families of victims, no acknowledgment of a wrong having been done, no questioning the morality of the murder of over a million people.

On the contrary, the killers brag freely about their roles in massacres and rapes, of the death and destruction for which they were responsible; the very nonchalance and joviality with which they brag about murder creates a fear among the people that, in turn, allows the gangsters to exploit and profit from that fear, and retain their power. In other words, they further victimize the survivors by forcing them to acknowledge and respect them, these men who killed their loved ones. Anwar acknowledges this openly throughout the film, noting that the survivors would curse him if they could, but that luckily for him they don’t have the power. Here, Anwar wishes to use Oppenheimer to help him and his friends make a “family friendly” film extolling their reign of terror, so that history remembers their role. Instead, Oppenheimer makes a film that reveals the darkness at the hearts of these men.

Given this unfettered rein in determining what kind of film they wanted to make about themselves, Anwar and his friends choose mostly to boast of their days of glory, to relive and re-enact the nights when they would scalp tickets at the movie theater, go and take in a film, and then head across the street to the newspaper office where they would then interrogate suspected Communists (fingered by the newspaper’s editor, who would conduct preliminary “interviews” to determine, essentially, who should die), kill men by strangling them with wire around their necks, and dispose of bodies in burlap bags. Anwar and his friends are all great lovers of American film, particularly gangster films, noir and the like, and Anwar used a mob murder technique from a movie to come up with his most “successful” and “humane” way of killing Communists: ligature strangulation with wire.

As Anwar and company tell their story about their lives as gangsters and explain the kind of movie they want to make, it becomes quickly evident that what they have in mind isn’t a thoughtful, introspective reflection on their history, but a glorious, bedazzled, trumped up showcase of themselves positioned as the heroes of this bloody tale of horror, augmented with dancing girls in fancy costumes, the rotund, hairy Herman, dressed in makeup and a sparkly turquoise mermaid dress, gleefully bloody re-enactments of the murders they committed, and a giant concrete fish. It’s a truly bizarre perspective on the slaughter of millions and the role these men had in it, so much so that at times, it’s even a little funny, the sheer audacity and absurdity of it all.

Until it’s not.

Oppenheimer and his colleagues set out here to try to unearth the honest truth of how these men feel about what they did by giving them room to explore their memories in creating their personal view of history, and hard as that truth may be to accept, they’ve certainly succeeded in building up this complex, complicated story made up of many interwoven and sometimes contradictory threads: How the gangsters were strongly influenced by movies, and pulled from movies ideas for killing techniques; how the head of the newspaper talks about being a “professional” journalist one minute, while the next we learn from Anwar how this same man played a part in deciding which of the accused lived or died; how an entire village was massacred and no one held accountable; how these men who led the death squads can now be extolled as heroes, exerting power and running for political office with impunity. Anwar, especially, has built his entire perception of self on the scaffolding of the belief that he is a national hero whose actions were absolutely justified. What happens to that sense of self if the scaffold gets shaken hard enough?

As they’re shooting scenes, Anwar’s gangster friends sometimes question what they’re doing — not whether what they’re filming is close to truth, but whether it will make them look bad, or whether they’re staging a killing or interrogation the “right” way, or if they would have really worn that type of pants or shoes while killing. There’s a scene when Oppenheimer is in a car with one of these gangsters, and asks from behind his camera whether the man feels any guilt, if he thinks the killings they perpetrated were wrong, and whether they should be held accountable. What, Oppenheimer wonders aloud (in a moment that has you truly fearing for his own safety) would this man think if he was hauled to The Hague as other war criminals have been, to be held accountable for his crimes?

And this man launches into a diatribe: Who are we to judge him? He asks. The United States has perpetrated its own genocides, he notes, pointing out the “civilization” of our country which resulted in the slaughter of many millions of Native Americans. “Who has held you accountable?” he demands. History is written by the winners, and the winners get to position themselves as the heroes; in Indonesia the gangsters won, and so they can paint themselves as the heroes they want to be remembered as. “Let them haul me before the Hague!” the gangster taunts. “They will make of me a bigger hero than I am now!”

The final third of the film shifts away from the mere bizarre and into something more truthful and therefore harder to watch, particularly when Anwar and his friends, along with many members of the Pancasila Youth, the brutal paramilitary organization whose members were also responsible for many killings, recreate the massacre at Kampung Kolam, in which they wiped out an entire village. The camera captures these men jokingly reminiscing about the actual massacre, laughing about how they raped as many women and young girls as they could and slaughtered everyone; the re-enactment itself proves so terrifying that many of the actors — themselves members of Pancasila Youth, and their wives and children, become genuinely traumatized — as do we as the audience, watching this all unfold.

The film’s wrenching final scene, which I’m not describing here because it’s truly indescribable — you really just have to sit through yourself to fully appreciate its emotional heft — offers a sense of some satisfaction to Anwar’s arc, but there’s no real closure in this film that’s going to satisfy any innate desire we may have for a sense of justice rendered, of moral retribution, of vast wrongs righted, or of those who perpetrated them held accountable. Oppenheimer uses his camera to capture the story he wants us to see, but allows it to unfold as it really is, and this lack of closure is, perhaps, the most important part of this tale that weaves through the bloody history of the 1965-66 overthrow and subsequent military takeover of the government of Indonesia; of Anwar Congo and his ilk; and of the history of the Indonesian people that continues to be written today. Anwar may find himself haunted by ghosts in the aftermath of looking himself in the mirror while making this film, but where is the ultimate justice for the millions of victims of death squads in Indonesia? Tragically, there is none for them, and therefore no sense of moral satisfaction for us, either.

If you see no other documentary this year, you’ll want to keep an eye out for this one, which so impressed Errol Morris and Werner Herzog that they came onto the film as executive producers. Perhaps the film’s greatest impact, other than that final scene, rests in the closing credits, most of which are listed, simply, as “Anonymous.” As you watch those anonymous credits roll by, one after another of those whose very identities must be protected for even working on this film, the full impact of all that you’ve seen settles in to stay. The Act of Killing offers no easy answers, but it does offer a glimpse into the minds of these killers, that at least may help us begin to formulate questions.

One Response to “TIFF12 Review: The Act of Killing”

  1. Hallick says:

    This movie sounds amazing but there probably isn’t a shower on Earth that’ll be able to wash it back out of my soul.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas