Published Jul 17, 2013Most documentaries about genocide are told from the perspective of the victims, rather than the perpetrators, creating pathos via identification with, and the humanizing of, those often relegated to numbers and statistics.
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing instead focuses on a pair of Indonesian "gangsters" responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists, intellectuals and Chinese citizens in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government. It's an odd take on what would normally be an unoriginal theme, yet the film evolves from the perspective of the very killers it sets out to vilify
Since the Indonesian government idolizes the killers, labelling their actions heroic deeds that helped create the state, it was no easy task for Oppenheimer to get victims of these atrocities to come forward and share their horrific stories. Much worse, the victims couldn't chance contradicting the official government story, implying the "Communists" (Chinese) were monsters that did unspeakable things to justifying a culling.
Oppenheimer and his co-directors, Chrstine Cynn and Anonymous (an Indonesian citizen that preferred to go uncredited to protect his/her life), went directly to the source, offering the killers the unique opportunity to tell their story in their own words, utilizing any cinematic style or genre they wished. They ultimately write, produce and star in a movie detailing the genocide they participated in. The Act of Killing documents the making-of, only occasionally sharing some of the final product with viewers.
The main "gangster" (or character) is Anwar Congo, a founding member of Indonesia's Pancasila Youth, a right-wing paramilitary organization that, at present, has over three million active members. Anwar is credited with the killing of 1,000 people, beating them to death with his bare hands, chopping off their heads and — his favourite method — strangling multiple victims simultaneously with a single piece of wire.
Anwar and his colleagues were originally small-time thugs prior to being adopted by the military and given the licence to lead their own death squads. Their criminal backgrounds started out with scalping tickets to black market screenings of American films, which speaks to their particular flair for killing — they each reference genre films as influences.
With the documentary crew in tow, they follow Anwar and his buddies as they recreate a sort of "greatest hits" vignettes from the genocide of 1965. Obviously, there's an abundance of atrocious high school improv acting and no production values to speak of, but knowing that these sequences are attempted re-creations of actual murders gives them a hint of severity. Most disturbing is the willingness of the men to instruct the actors on how to properly beg for their lives, writhe in agony and, eventually, die.
From a cursory glance, it could appear as though Oppenheimer and his crew are exploiting the murders, yet, as the production progresses, they begin to use the movie to illustrate their feelings on what they have done and what they have had to live with, resulting in a catharsis, of sorts.
As the killers reminisce about their blood-filled pasts and swap stories about their glory days, they also pause their filmmaking for their daily prayers, emulating a Western idea of normalcy that's discomforting and weirdly disingenuous. Historical "crimes against humanity" are discussed as a justification tool, leading to observations about mass killings throughout history going unpunished, such as those performed by the original European settlers in America. Even the Indonesian politicians seen spouting their propaganda throughout begin to sound like America's right-wing Tea Party. It becomes an unsettling reminder of how self-preservation can rapidly shift a wavering, performative ideology.
While seemingly a haphazard and unstructured documentary, wavering between perspectives and reality constructs, the haunting method of storytelling in The Act of Killing ultimately proves effective. Though the over-acting and "rehearsed" feeling leave the idea of reality in constant flux, there's an added dimension of performance and presentation as projections of self, making everything being told seem vaguely insincere.
In turn, this challenges our assumptions of "facts" in the documentary form and in the image those in front of us present. (Films We Like)