The Act of Killing, a documentary film focused on the lives of the 1960’s Indonesian death squad leaders, is a chilling insight into the minds of mass killers. Produced by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing was a way for Anwar Congo and his fellow death squad leaders to tell their story through film. Anwar and his fellow ‘gangsters’ were part of a move to eradicate all ‘communists’ from Indonesia following a failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party. The purges also included the indiscriminate slaughtering of ethnic Chinese.
A group of small time movie theatre ‘gangsters’ shot to fame in 1965 with the failed coup elevating them to death squad leaders. ‘Gangster’ is how they describe themselves and inspiration for their dress, actions and poses in various photographs came from American films. They tell us that ‘gangster’ means ‘free men’ and wear the term with pride. The current government is shown making appearances with the ‘gangsters’ and lauds their contribution to upholding the regime as they can move around the red tape of bureaucracy and keep order where the government cannot. This is deeply disturbing and a shockingly open glorification of illegal and criminal action, demonstrating the extent of impunity within Indonesia.
The ludicrous scenes Anwar and his friends create make it all the more disturbing that these men are idolised killers. It is unclear whether the trippy scenes are attempts to fictionalise their actions and hide the shame they feel, unable to come to terms with indiscriminately taking human life or whether the stagnant culture they live in has glorified them to such an extent that they really do not understand or care about the acts they have committed.
We follow Anwar Congo and his friends from public engagements with the Pancasila Youth to places including their homes, shops where they openly extort money with thinly veiled threats and their favourite places to conduct killings. They visit a renowned newspaper office where the editor proudly claims to have supplied the names of so-called communists for the group to kill and confesses that he twisted the words of interviewees to label them communists as it made for better journalism; he shows no remorse for ordering the murder of innocent people.
The film chillingly moves between scenes of Congo discussing the best methods of killing so as not to dirty his clothes with blood, to his home where he interacts with his grandchildren. In this way Joshua Oppenheimer has created something remarkable, it prompts us to question how a man who is so gentle and loving with his grandchildren, even chastising them for injuring a duckling, could have personally murdered hundreds of people.
Oppenheimer’s ability to refrain from open criticism of the men allows them to develop their own concept for the film they are creating. The scenes
become ever more ridiculous with Herman Koto dressing as a woman to provide humour to the film as they worry the reconstruction of villages razed to the ground and whole communities slaughtered may become boring to viewers. This exposes the delusions that the group suffer from due to lack of change in Indonesia since the 1960’s and highlights the potential effects of glorifying a military regime forged in bloodshed and violence with no checks on the operation of the regime. This draws our attention to the impunity ongoing within Indonesia that allows the prevailing hostility to communists who need to be ‘exterminated’.
Through the shame of the shop-owners in the extortion scenes and the unwillingness of the public to be involved in attempts to recreate a storming of a communist household Oppenheimer manages to capture the fear of the ordinary people, the depth of feeling against communism and the ignorance of the killers. The contrast of the extortion scenes, which are distinctly menacing despite the light-hearted air of the extorters, and the regular return to filming next to a giant fish complete with dancing girls, seemingly with no obvious purpose, makes the group of ‘gangsters’ seem increasingly out of touch with reality.
The film develops into a journey of discovery as we witness the emotional development of Anwar and we can see glimpses of conscience. The culmination of the film, Oppenheimer and Anwar’s discussion on the roof of a shop where many men were cold-bloodedly murdered, shows Anwar breaking down in remorse for what he has done. He claims he knows what the victims felt as they were dying yet Oppenheimer breaks his passivity by reminding him that the situations were nothing alike as Anwar had never been in danger of his life during their reconstruction.
The film, which has the capacity to be extremely troublesome in Indonesia, listed many names in the credits as anonymous which speaks volumes about the fear of speaking out against the regime. It is unclear just how far the acceptance of the abhorrence of communists has permeated the attitudes of Indonesians but we can tell that apathy characterises their relationship with politics. This is evident when it is uncovered that many at the rallies for the Pancasila Youth the audience are paid to be there and that the people vote according to who can bribe them the most. The Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organisation claiming 3 million members and a legacy of the 1960’s is endorsed publicly by the government despite blatant extortion and illegality, something that is shown all too willingly by Herman and Anwar.
The fear is most strikingly demonstrated through the story of one of the crew helping with the film. He recounts to Anwar and Adi Zulkadry his personal experience from 1965. His Chinese step-father was dragged from his home and killed, his mutilated body being discovered by his then 11 year old stepson who was forced to carry the body to the woods to bury it. All throughout the man is saying ‘I am not criticising you’ and laughing at the story in an effort not to offend the ‘gangsters’, the response is that not everyone’s story can be told, implying this man’s story is just not as important as their own.
Oppenheimer can be accused of neglecting the historical as it does not feature heavily in the film but this is not the focus of the film. Instead it is on the actions of the men and the impact of impunity on the culture of fear that has been created in order to assuage the consciences of those involved in the genocide of 1965. It highlights the different ways of coping with our conscience, how each person may react to committing unspeakable acts against another person. Oppenheimer has created something truly remarkable. It captivates the audience with dialogue which is horrifying in the banality with which the subjects discuss mass murder and still revel in its glory 38 years later.