I first heard about The Act of Killing in April when it played here at IFF Boston; I didn’t attend the screening, but I saw audiences walking out in a state of shock, and I overheard them as they tried to put into words what they had just seen. It occurred to me that this might be something extraordinary. To say that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is about the Indonesian genocide of 1965, in which right-wing paramilitary forces overthrew the Indonesian government, established a dictatorship, and effectively murdered thousands of civilians branded as “communists,” fails to do justice to its profundity and its originality. In getting up close and personal with the assassins themselves, letting them tell their stories in their own words, watching as they stage elaborate re-enactments of their crimes for the camera, The Act of Killing manages to go deeper and darker than just about any film of this kind with the possible exception of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.
The American-British Oppenheimer spent years in Indonesia interviewing his subjects for this film, nearly all of whom were directly involved in the genocidal violence that attended the 1965 coup. Celebrated by the Indonesian government as national heroes, these men now appear to be in their sixties and seventies. Dressed like Florida retirees, often flanked by children and grandchildren, they smile faintly as they describe how they routinely tortured, raped and killed untold numbers of people. (Anwars Congo, who emerges as the film’s primary subject, claims credit for some one thousand victims.) In the film’s most surreal sequences, the assassins—many of whose methods are said to have been inspired by the violence they saw in American films—opt to re-stage the executions for Oppenheimer’s camera in the style of a Hollywood spectacle. The results are political propaganda at its most crude and bizarre, a justification of war crimes that’s part gangster movie, part splatter film, part musical (see above).
It’s here that Oppenheimer’s film gets really interesting. In the act of re-enacting history for the camera, the executioners are made to re-encounter the trauma of the death squads, or in some cases to encounter that trauma for the first time. We learn that Congo is haunted by the memory of a victim whose dead eyes continued to stare at him after he had been decapitated, but it’s not until Congo plays the role of a victim for the camera—an experience that visibly rattles him—that he begins to feel the full effects of that violence on his own body. The final sequence of the film, in which Oppenheimer’s camera watches quietly, coldly, as Congo quite literally tries to vomit out his own guilt, is excruciating. I’ll confess that I walked into The Act of Killing with a mixture of genuine curiosity (those IFF Boston reactions) and obligation (reviews have been unanimously positive, with many calling it one of the most important films of the year). I walked out shaken. And I’ll never be able to listen to the song “Born Free” the same way again.