by Thomas Crozier
Joshua Oppenheimer’s award winning documentary The Act of Killing is both terrifying and surreal. This film sets out to re-enact the brutal genocide that occurred in Indonesia during the 1960s where over a 1 million Chinese people and Communists were slaughtered in just one year, but not by the Indonesia army, but by gangsters or ‘free men’ as they like to refer themselves as.
The re-enactment is not by just by a group of actors, but in fact Oppenheimer offers the chance for the joyful mass-murders to become movie stars. They play themselves, they recreate a village massacre and they even play the very victims they heartlessly execute. The chilling thing is, the men take pleasure in describing how they would kill their prisoners.
The film starts with the gangsters Anwar Congo and Herman Koto searching for women and children to play a role in the village massacre, which later would bring the children to tears after the trauma they feel from being in the scene. The gangsters go on to play out scenes of gruesome torture then, Oppenheimer cuts sharply to scenes of ladies dancing next to a giant abandoned fish structure, with Herman gazing upon them in a dress. This completely threw me off, as the gangsters were seemingly making a film about genocide look like a dream
The main man Anwar Congo (who has personal killed around 1,000 people) seems to be the only one in this group of killers to feel any regret, the rest brag about they raped 14 year-old girls and killed their girl-friend’s dad. It makes the whole film seem dislodged from reality, later on they would even take a prayer break in the middle of a torture scene, and then have at the end have a victim with wire around his neck thanking Anwar for releasing his to heaven while giving him a medal. Showing the propaganda behind their movie that still is in Indonesian society, how cold-blooded these men are and how distorted their views are of their actions
Oppenheimer is often just an observer of these men while they try to create their film. Sometimes they argue over how truthful they should be about the genocide, some of them argue they can’t show too many scenes of horror and regret as that would make them look guilty and counteract all the government’s propaganda. However when he does he tries to provoke a reaction which gives an even deeper look in how these leaders of death squads feel about their killings, some show remorse, while others make claims that what they were doing was right. He manages to get Anwar to feel guilty and depressed about his actions, Anwar says that he felt how his victims felt, however Oppenheimer is quick to remind him that he couldn’t feel the same way as someone who was about to be killed.
This film also shows an insight into modern day Indonesia. The government is openly seen supporting these paramilitary groups, and even huge parliamentary figures like the vice president and a minister go to give speeches to huge crowds of paramilitaries, one proclaiming to a sea of member that “gangsters get things done”. The gangsters still discriminate against the Chinese in Indonesia ‘collecting’ money from their shops, shows how much power the gangsters still have.
Joshua Oppenheimer has made a masterpiece with making not just a documentary about an issue I had no idea about, but with an interesting format that shatters the mould of the normal documentary.
Watch this film and many more at the macrobert.