Among yesterday’s Oscar nominees was this movie, nominated for Best Documentary Feature:
To describe “The Act of Killing” as a riveting documentary about Indonesian death squads that terrorized that country’s citizens in the 1960s might be factually accurate. But it doesn’t get nearly to the heart of it. This audacious, horrifying, boldly experimental plunge into the mind-set of murderers and the culture of impunity breaks so many rules of documentary decorum that it virtually creates its own genre: investigative improv, perhaps. Or, better yet, Brechtian nonfiction.
Whatever you call it, “The Act of Killing” is a must-see. Using blunt stagecraft, probing psychological insight, elegant interrogation of narrative truth and characters steeped in a particularly terrifying brand of self-mythologizing, director Joshua Oppenheimer has succeeded in turning “The Act of Killing” into both a sharply confrontational vehicle for bearing witness and a craftily layered meditation on the cinematic medium itself.
“The Act of Killing” focuses on the years 1965 and ’66, when a young man named Anwar Congo became a legendary death- squad leader in North Sumatra, murdering communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals following the military coup that brought longtime authoritarian leader Suharto to power. It’s estimated that 1 million people died during those purges, which were carried out with the help of a paramilitary organization called the Pancasila Youth, an organization that thrives even 15 years after Suharto’s resignation.
Despite its historical context, “The Act of Killing” contains none of the expected stock footage or newsreels of atrocities and trials. Rather, Oppenheimer catches up with Congo, his cronies and Pancasila Youth leaders in the present day, as they proudly recall their actions 50 years ago. What becomes unnervingly clear as Oppenheimer films these men swaggering through city streets, shaking down shopkeepers and bullying citizens who nervously laugh along with them, is that not only have they not been prosecuted for their crimes, but they’re also lionized for them. Congo is so proud of his past deeds that he eagerly shows Oppenheimer how he preferred to dispatch his victims, strangling them with a taut piece of wire so they would bleed less.
As “The Act of Killing” progresses, Congo and his fellow criminals explain that they learned most of their postures and methods from Hollywood crime movies, for which they were scalping tickets when they were enlisted to become freelance domestic terrorists in the 1960s. Citing Marlon Brando and Al Pacino as role models, they call themselves “gangsters” throughout the film, reminding anyone who will listen that the word for “gangster” in Indonesian has its roots in the term for “free man” in Dutch. In time, Congo and his colleagues are donning garish costumes and bloody makeup to reenact the torture and murders they committed, staged like cheap film noir knockoffs with chillingly bad dialogue.
This movie is a strange bird, not just because of the way it was made but because of it’s topic. The only major Hollywood film to touch the subject of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966 was The Year of Living Dangerously, which only dealt with the events leading up to the military coup that triggered the killings. Most Americans know nothing about Indonesia other than it’s somewhere in Asia and that Barack Obama once lived there. (Ironically, his family moved there in 1966.) It’s the fourth most populous country in the world and there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country.
How is it possible that 1 million people could be murdered and no one noticed or cared? Part of the reason was that in 1965-1966 we were busy fighting in nearby Vietnam and the American media still hadn’t figured out what was really going on in that part of the world, or if they had figured it out they weren’t telling us. The US government liked Suharto, so they didn’t complain when he started killing commies. In fact, we encouraged it. This was back during the LBJ era when liberals were still anti-communists.
This movie reconfirms the banality of evil and the dangers of authoritarian rule. Left, right or center, there is no “good” kind of dictatorship. American history would have been very different if George Washington had proclaimed himself king or president for life.
The Act of Killing was released in July 2013. Check with Netflix if you want to see it.