In 1965, Indonesia experienced a failed political coup, after which began a genocide of over half a million people. Suspected communists, many of them ethnic Chinese, were massacred by members of the political party that still rules the country today. Unlike many other ethnic or political cleansings, the victims were largely murdered one-by-one, in whatever style suited their executioner at the time. “Movie-theater gangsters”, who would spend their afternoons watching and scalping tickets for the cinema, were recruited into bloodthirsty crime squads. The killings have gone unpunished, and the many thugs employed as murderers have retired comfortably. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia with a surprising goal: offer these men the chance to make a movie, re-staging their murders in symbolic fashion and reflecting on their participation. What results is a “documentary of the imagination”, an incredible meditation on unpunished corruption as well as proof that guilt cannot be ignored forever.
We are introduced to two gangsters, who are between them responsible for thousands of murders. The first, Anwar Congo, is a grandfather now, slim and dark-skinned with curly white hair. His friend, Herman Koto, is a Rubenesque small-time schemer, jovial and excitable. On the surface, both seem perfectly comfortable with their choices and current lifestyle. They are both eager to enumerate their crimes, and approach the moviemaking experience with childlike enthusiasm. The style of one scene is cribbed from Goodfellas and the like, clearly a heavy influence on the men’s self-image. There are fantastical Bollywood-esque dreamlike sequences, with pretty girls dancing out of the mouth of a fish or at the base of a waterfall. There are comic interludes, in which the zaftig Herman dresses up as a lady because he feels their film needs some humor to be a success. There is a particularly telling recreation of a nightmare that Anwar seems to revisit regularly, in which the ghosts of his victims torment him. Unflagging in his emotional denial, Anwar later stages a scene in which those same specters present him with a medal and thank him for sending them to the afterlife.
Much is made in the film of the idea that the word “Gangster” in their culture means “Free Man.” They wear their status as a badge of pride, and in fact seem unable to stop talking about the things they’ve done. One of Anwar’s and Herman’s friends recounts the news stories he fabricated to convince people that the communists were vicious and dangerous, and to falsely accuse whomever struck his fancy of having communist ties. One man takes Oppenheimer’s crew with him on his rounds of extortion – Chinese vendors and shopkeepers in Indonesia seem to be hit up for protection money on a weekly basis. These interludes are discussed with a forced casualness and insistent smiles. Anwar takes us to a rooftop where he strangled his victims one by one, and takes pride in the fact that their deaths “weren’t violent” (meaning there was little blood involved). He also confesses to a friend that he has frequent nightmares about his victims. The man brushes him off, declaring Anwar’s psychological turmoil the result of a weak mind. All the while, the gangsters seem to be feeling slight tendrils of doubt creep into their brains, and attempting to tamp down any notion that what they did might have been wrong.
F Scott Fitzgerald once posited that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This film seems to present a similar paradox, but one of opposing emotions. Although no graphic imagery is shown, one recoils in disgust at the pride these men take in their murders, and the breezy affability with which they are discussed. But at the same time, a more challenging experience begins to grow – that of empathy for these killers. Translating their crimes into movie-screen metaphors begins to erode the mental wall Anwar has been reinforcing for decades. We are no longer able to reduce this man to just a monster. In viewing him as a human like us, still as capable of salvation as he is vulnerable to damnation, we are robbed of the comfort that comes from thinking of murderers as fundamentally outside and beyond ourselves.
If this documentary has profound things to say about good and evil, it has almost as much to say about cinema. As with any art form, the symbolic images and visual metaphors of the killers’ film-within-a-film illustrate more complex and affecting truths than the plain facts ever could. This applies as much to their participation as it does to our viewing experience. At one point, Anwar has to play the victim in a scene where he is interrogated by two gangsters and then executed (in real life, Anwar has performed this scene many times in the opposite role). Although ridden with mafia-movie cliché and unvarnished artifice, this scene induces something approaching a mild panic attack in the man. Having to act like one of his victims for even a few minutes, to put himself mentally in their place, cuts through all the equivocating with which he’s tried to shield his conscience. Even the surprising levity throughout (much of it courtesy of a cross-dressing Herman mugging for the camera like a Sumatran Divine) adds nuance to our image of these people’s numbed, corrupt but still fully human souls. Werner Herzog’s famous adage about cinema transcending literal facts to get at the “poetic, ecstatic truth of the matter” is perfectly vindicated here. It’s no wonder Herzog was so eager to lend his clout to Oppenheimer’s film.
By the time one of the men finally utters a shattering question – “Have I sinned?” – many viewers will be almost as concerned for his welfare as they are for justice to break through. And break through it will: already this film has rocked Indonesia’s complacency and sparked a potential societal awakening. The Act of Killing is a transformative watch. It is the kind of film one mulls over for days afterward, and insistently recommends to friends and family. The astonishing thing is that, for a documentary about genocide, it is not “hard to watch” in the usual sense. There are no horrific photographs, no dour recitations of death statistics, just a journey through the soul which is just as entertaining as it is moving. What is hard is wrestling with the emotional complexity of what we’re witnessing. As Catholics, we understand the need for confession and repentance in order to move beyond our past transgressions. Anwar, Herman and their friends are learning the hard way that no amount of denial can keep out the truth forever. The word “Gangster” may mean “Free Man”, but these unpunished killers are anything but free.
The Act of Killing is 115 minutes, and has not been given a rating by the MPAA.
It is available on DVD and (at time of writing) through Netflix Instant.