Last week, I watched a documentary entitled The Act Of Killing. It was directed by an American-British director called Josh Oppenheimer. It is one of the most remarkable and horrifying things I have ever seen. I’ve been thinking about it for a week now, and I know I’ll have an awful lot of trouble shifting it from my mind.
I’m the sort of person who believes that film is an art form, that it can illuminate and lift even the most base of subjects. I adore film, especially documentary film making because it is truth in a pure form. French-Swiss film director Jean Luc Godard famously claimed that ‘film is truth twenty four times per second’ and I believe that this is extremely accurate.
The Act Of Killing is unbelievable in so many ways. It’s a horrifying piece of cinema that documents a horrifying event and its even more horrifying consequences. There is very little, if anything, that is pleasant about this documentary. Nevertheless, I think it must be one of the most important films of the last thirty years. If you have any interest in the nature of humanity, this film is for you.
In Indonesia, in the mid 60’s, a failed coup led to a nationwide genocide that saw over a million people die. These people were labelled ‘communists,’ taken to quiet corners of noisy cities and murdered in the most horrendous way possible. This was usually done with no real evidence of wrongdoing. Today, the genocide is celebrated by the current government, and the men who murdered are still in positions of power.
These aging gangsters continue to walk the poorest neighbourhoods of Indonesia, extorting families and blackmailing citizens into voting for them in general elections. Josh Oppenheimer tried to talk to the families of the victims who suffered at the hands of these men, but he was made to stop. He was instructed to talk to the ‘gangsters’ themselves, so that he could get their side of the story.
He didn’t have any idea about what was to happen next.
These gangsters and militia men were not interested in justifying their actions. They were, and still are, extremely proud of the lives that they took. Cue two hours of the most surreal footage you will ever witness. With the bare minimum of encouragement, Oppenheimer watched and filmed as the aging killers volunteered to re-enact some of their most violent deeds.
The result is The Act Of Killing – a truly unbelievable feat of filmmaking. It cycles from one bizarre scene to the next. At one point we’re watching a deceptively gentle looking man excitedly act up in front of the camera, eager to show Oppenheimer exactly how he used a piece of wire and a wooden block to kill hundreds of ‘communists.’ In another scene, he dances as he describes how happily he used to kill – he always loved to imitate the sadism of the psychopaths in Hollywood movies.
We get to watch his grossly obese pal inexplicably dress in drag and direct lurid reimaginings of real life murders – murders that he constantly boasts about being a part of. As you watch, you can feel a mental block trying to establish itself in your brain. Surely not, surely this cannot be real. Who are these people? How are they allowed to do this? They might look like us, with ten fingers and ten toes, but they are nothing like anybody you or I have ever met or heard about before.
The Act Of Killing begins to reach a crescendo when the militia men who run Indonesia stage a full scale mock up of a massacre that they carried out. As houses burn, children scream and villagers uncomfortably act out scenes of torture and abuse – you start to realise that this is more than a film. If you can bear to keep watching after listening to a fat, greasy ‘gangster’ boast about raping girls as young as fourteen, you will be rewarded with one of the most quietly devastating conclusions ever committed to film.
After more than two hours of boasting, the film’s main gangster and protagonist has a very painful breakdown on camera. After bragging about countless murders, a love for sadistic torture methods, and a worry that he might not have worn the right kind of executing trousers – the elderly Anwar Congo is unexpectedly confronted with the full horror of what he has done.
The realisation comes suddenly after Congo agrees to play one of his own torture victims. Without warning, the reality of the situation hits him and he becomes a broken man. Though it isn’t enough for this man to find remorse now, after decades of ignoring the pain he put so many people through – that doesn’t stop the ending of this film from being an utter revelation.
It is a deep, dark insight into human morality. And no matter how much you hate this man for the things that he is proud to admit to on film, you cannot help but be infinitely relieved for him when he finally becomes a human being. The dying minutes of the film are nothing but an aging murderer, stood in the environment where he used to kill, violently retching because his body can longer deal with the shock of his own existence.
It’s The Act Of Killing – please go and watch it.