A new kind of documentary: 'The Act of Killing'

'The Act of Killing,' which screened on Saturday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, tells the story of a 1960s Indonesian death squad through some of Hollywood's most beloved genres.

The Act of Killing features one of the most striking openings of the year: a group of women dressed in pink emerge from the mouth of a fish-shaped building, while a man in black robes and another man in drag stand, arms raised, in front of a waterfall.

It’s a beguiling, haunting opening that would be memorably surreal in any film, let alone a documentary about genocide.

Between 1965 and 1966, an oppressive right-wing “New Order” of Indonesia murdered approximately 1-3 million communists and ethnic Chinese, among others. The death squad leaders were vicious gangsters, and many of them now hold positions of power in Indonesia.

The Act of Killing follows Anwar Congo, who killed up to 1,000 people, and who recounts his exploits to director Joshua Oppenheimer casually. Anwar is also, notably, a movie buff, and Oppenheimer asked him and his friends to recreate their killings in the style of their favorite film genres: gangster, western, musicals. It’s a chilling piece of work, even if its episodic nature makes it feel structurally messy.

The film’s flaws are largely minor in the face of such an unflinching look at the nature of evil. It’s also refreshing to see that the film doesn’t tell the viewer how to feel about the events; it trusts the audience to be naturally mortified by how the men involved may or may not feel any semblance of guilt.

One high-ranking official nonchalantly talks of his past murders while golfing. A reporter who worked in the same building where the killings happened claims to have been unaware of it. It isn’t possible, says one of the killers; they didn’t hide it, and the reporter's boss had an active hand in the killings. But denial is an easy way to escape guilt.

And what of Anwar? At first, he shows little remorse for his past. He acts like a sweet, charming old man, except that he’s talking about his role in a massacre. He seems almost proud and cheerful, and speaks to Oppenheimer like he would any friend.

It says something that Anwar loves and tries to emulate American westerns, gangster films and musicals, genres often seen as escapist pictures. He and his friends say that “gangster” means “free man,” and indeed he feels free from guilt, from restraint, from any semblance of decency. But it’s also fitting that these superficially escapist genres are actually reflective -- of misdeeds, of greed, of hubris or, in the case of many musicals, of the pathological sadness beneath strained smiles.

When Anwar recreates his crimes, playing an executor or a victim depending on the scene, it forces an old man to reflect on a young killer’s actions. He emulated the vicious gangsters, but he now sees the victims’ plight. He tries to use the musical dream sequence as a way to absolve himself, but he can’t escape his nightmares (which are themselves vividly represented in bizarre horror-movie scenes).

None of this is to forgive Anwar, but rather to serve as an expressive cinematic comeuppance. He may still be in power, but he can’t ignore the horror of his actions anymore, or the ghosts that haunt Indonesia to this day.

Photo courtesy of Tula Goenka.

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