Sure, I may label myself as the horror guy, spiraling into insanity with every overly-gory film about dead teenagers and bloodthirsty monsters I watch, but the reality always remains that those indulgences are just films – Hollywood magic if you will. Fantasy. Fiction. There are no real zombies, Freddy Krueger, or killer Good Guy dolls.
With that said, our world is full of actual terrors, true stories of entire groups of people being exterminated with extreme prejudice – these are the real horror stories. The stories of racial cleansing, genocide, and power-hungry killings that saw gallons of *real* innocent blood shed. Women. Children. It didn’t matter. There are true stories of violence and murder much more disturbing than any horror film ever created, and every once and a while a documentary filmmaker challenges audiences by traveling to destinations less-desirable to tell a story so sickeningly traumatizing it seems more like Hollywood fiction instead of a real point in history. Enter Joshua Oppenheimer and his documentary The Act Of Killing.
Sorry to give you a history lesson, but you have to understand the severity of the actions that took place in Indonesia years ago.
It all started with the 30 September Movement where Suharto overthrew the first President of Indonesia, Sukarno, in a violent and destructive coup d’état attempt. Many army generals and officers lost their lives, the army blamed the attacks on the Indonesian Communist Party, Sukarno was now in power, and thus started a massive campaign to eradicate all “Communists” in an act of controlled retaliation. Many street-level gangsters who sold movie tickets on the black market were promoted to full-fledged death squad leaders, and that’s where main character Anwar Congo’s story begins. These death squads reportedly helped the army kill more than one million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals – as Congo claims to have racked up a body count in the hundreds.
Yes, a killer like Anwar can still walk the streets freely because he killed with government backing. Justice? Injustice? That’s only a surface scratch on the moral dilemmas Oppenheimer beautifully poses.
The Act Of Killing isn’t some fact-filled historical documentary though. Don’t get me wrong, all the ghastly recollections of heinous acts against humanity are sadly true, but it’s not narrated by Keith David or filled with awful dramatic reenactments. Instead, Joshua Oppenheimer gave Anwar and his past “associates” the chance to re-enact their killings by acting out scenes from some of their favorite film genres – gangster films, musicals, westerns, you name it. The journey we go on is guided by nothing but pure emotion and the ability for our killers to see their actions in a brand new light – powerful stuff.
When we first meet Anwar Congo, he’s all smiles. At first glance he’s nothing but a sweet, innocent old man who likes to dress as if he lives in Hawaii and loves Hollywood movies – but then he starts talking about all the people he’s killed over the years as a death squad member without a single hint of remorse or afterthought. Early on Anwar takes Joshua to a rooftop where he killed many “Communists,” bragging about the “humane” way he’d invented of killing victims with the least amount of bloody mess leftover. When asked how he deals with the memories of the killings, Anwar rattles off a list of distractions that include “dancing, alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy,” and then we see Anwar start participating in a jovial dance routine on the very roof where he took hundreds of lives – never losing his gleaming smile.
Now here’s the tricky part – revealing the magnificent documentary tricks Oppenheimer uses to shine a spotlight on these Indonesian atrocities while not giving away the deeply emotional discoveries that take place along the way. While these death squad veterans think making a movie about their “heroic” exploits will be all fun and games, Oppenheimer uses the opportunities in each scene to poke and prod the inner core of each character – pulling away the gangster persona they proudly project.
Don’t think the entire film is one big downer though, because Anwar is an absolutely enjoyable personality on camera – and so are his friends. They’re funny types that eat up the limelight, providing some hilarious moments while filming their “movie.” From one of the fatter death squad members dressing up as a female for the western scene to the off-color comments made during the process, you aren’t dealt one heaving emotional blow after the next – Oppenheimer smartly gives you a chance to breath now and again. But as the film goes on, these scenes become fewer and far between, which makes perfect sense as the violence starts to really eat away at the “actors.”
In creating these movie scenes, The Act Of Killing actually forces people like Anwar to re-live their brutal actions and see themselves actually performing the kills – albeit through the medium of a feature film. There are true moments of horror where the “actors” recreate past history, like a village-wide assault of killing and raping, but even after they call “Cut”, government officials and “cast members” are left shaken and visibly disturbed after being brought back to the actual murderous times. Anwar and most of his friends start absorbing all the pain they’ve caused and lives they’ve ruined, but some still don’t – and that’s the true horror. The fact that killing came so easy for some, and even years later, as some men are able to plead for forgiveness and pray God has mercy, others can still reminisce about how raping a 14-year-old was nothing but extreme pleasure – and miss it. Truly, savagely, sadistically, and honestly miss it.
Joshua Oppenheimer is nothing short of a genius documentarian with the ways he’s able to not only paint a gorgeously tragic picture of the wrongful killings that took place in Indonesia, but also bring forth the parties responsible – and get their true story. These weren’t interviews or talking heads, these are mighty killers who are turned into charismatic movie stars – and then broken down. Again, half the horror is in hearing the reactions of those who don’t believe they did a single thing wrong, but this is balanced by moments of guilt-stricken pain the more sensible characters feel. There’s a heaviness which will weigh your stomach down like you’ve just eaten an anvil covered in peanut butter as Oppenheimer coaxes feelings out of characters for the first times in their lives – and that heaviness just sinks deeper and deeper as the film goes on.
The Act Of Killing reinvented my perception of documentaries in the best of ways. Oppenheimer knew the story he wanted to tell, but knew the only way to properly tell it was by going directly to the source. In this case, the source was a bunch of death squad icons who happily went about their lives, but Joshua knew there had to be something else. How could a man kill so many people and not end up in an insane asylum? How could someone be so unfazed by the act of killing? Joshua knew the answers he wanted, but he also knew he wasn’t going to get them by just interviewing these Indonesian legends. By lulling his subjects into a sense of openness and security, Joshua is slowly able to break away the thick layers of repression and false convincing that let so many rationalize their killings and be provided each person’s most honest current reaction – be it repentance or pride.
Never forcefully pushing an anti-death squad agenda, honesty is all Joshua wanted, and pure, unadulterated honesty is what Joshua receives – exactly what a good documentary is built on.
“War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.”
The brutal honesty that fills The Act Of Killing is a true testament to Joshua Oppenheimer's crafty documentarian skills which emotionally break characters down without them even knowing.