» A glittering seaof darkness

Joshua Openheimer experienced a surprising openness from mass murderers. This was the beginning of The Act of Killing. 

In The Act of Killing American documentarist Joshua Oppenheimer lets former Indonesian death squad members reenact their mass killings of communists in the mid-60s. By coincidence, the director became aware of the murderers’ boastful attitude towards their own misdeeds, and decided to make this the focal point in his investigation of genocide. The film plays like a surreal, behind-the-scenes story, which gradually leads to a deeper insight into the mentality of these murderers.

At first, the setting seems like something out of a bizarre and colorful nightmare; exotic dancers appear from the mouth of a giant metal fish, while a roaring waterfall functions as the backdrop for an obese cross-dressing character who stands together with an elderly man clad in a flowing black gown. They wave their hands, like they are worshiping some unknown god and off-camera a manic director-voice screams: “Don’t let the camera catch you looking bad! Smile! 1, 2, 3, 4!”

Shortly afterwards, it is revealed that this strange scenario is part of the many unsettling reenactments which comprise most of American documentarist Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film is a relentless investigation of the mentality of mass murderers and what makes it stand out is that the murderers themselves act as the eager storytellers.

Oppenheimer conceived the idea for his film while doing research in Indonesia for another documentary called The Globalisation Tapes (Indonesia 2003) in 2001. After learning that relatives of the victims of the 1965-66 anti-communist purges lived practically next door to the killers, he approached one of these perpetrators and was quickly invited in as a guest. What Oppenheimer experienced was a surprising openness and confidence, since many of these people still consider Americans their allies because of the US support of the Indonesian military during President Suharto’s regime – a historical fact that puts further critical weight on the film’s main investigation. Before long, the young filmmaker is watching in astonishment as his host enthusiastically reenacts the horrible deeds in front of his ten- year-old granddaughter. The immediate willingness to acknowledge these atrocities sparked Oppenheimer’s interest in telling the story of the massacre from a highly surprising and otherwise unattainable perspective. He used this first contact to gain the confidence of other perpetrators placed higher in the hierarchy, and before long the idea for The Act of Killing was born.

The young filmmaker is watching in astonishment, as his host enthusiastically reenacts the horrible deeds in front of his ten-year-old granddaughter.

This unexpected access presented the filmmaker with the possibility to focus on how these criminals perceived themselves and their historic legacy. The main perpetrator that we follow through the entire film is the older man seen dancing in blissful joy at the beginning of the film. He is known as Anwar Congo. In the mid-60s Congo made a living as a petty gangster scalping tickets at the local cinema. During the military takeover he was recruited by the death squads and became one of its most feared executioners. Throughout this period, Congo personally took the lives of more than a hundred people and ordered the deaths of numerous others. This procedure was common practice as the regime employed gangsters to do their killings. The current status of his misdeeds is such that he is celebrated as a hero by the rightwing paramilitary group called the Pancasila Youth. This organization numbers more than three million members, including government ministers.

During The Act of Killing, Congo and his accomplices reenact several of these murders in front of Oppenheimer’s camera, and one scene tops the other in strangely absurd self-celebration. A film noir-like setup finds Congo playing the role of his own torture victim; another demonstrates the chaotic destruction of an entire village. The scenario depicted in the film’s intro even plays out as a triumphant Indonesian music video for the John Barry tune Born Free – a bizarre allusion to the fact that these men, by way of their gangster lifestyle, consider themselves as free individuals.

These murderers’ self-image is one of the most shocking aspects examined by Oppenheimer, precisely because it mirrors the fictionalized version of the gangster, the one we are so familiar with from countless Hollywood portrayals. Their ruthless values and caricatured ways of presenting themselves is a common denominator for both the older and younger members of the Pancasila organization. Congo’s overweight “comic sidekick” Herman Koto is an especially menacing acquaintance. Through his boastful bullying of the neighborhood and his fulsome commitment to the heroic reenactment of his mentor’s despicable deeds, he inevitably brings to mind a grotesque, real-life version of psychopath Tommy DeVito in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA 1990). Like in any gangster organization, the Pancasila has a leader. His name is Yapto Soerjosoemarno. An official speech to the members of the organization shows us that he openly embraces this status as crime boss. During a subsequent interview by Oppenheimer – recorded while Soerjosoemarno is relaxing with a game of golf – we further learn that he is, not surprisingly, frustrated with the dawning democracy and longs for the days of the military dictatorship. He wallows in the gangster lifestyle and boasts the appropriate Wise Guy slogan: Relax and Rolex.

Thus, the realities uncovered in The Act of Killing are of almost unbelievable and unbearable proportions. Murder and corruption exist as blatant forces in Indonesian society and these are thoroughly intertwined with global political history. This uncompromising approach could risk the pitfall of total parody, but what really makes Oppenheimer’s documentary stand out is the way he situates his central subject Anwar Congo. Quite early on, it becomes apparent that this ageing mass murderer has problems dealing with his atrocities. Encouraged by his surroundings, he plays along with the bizarre reenactments, but it often shines through, or is directly expressed, that he is haunted by his dark past. Instead of articulately confronting him with his misdeeds, Oppenheimer systematically revisits the documentation. In a memorable scene, which echoes the personal experience that initiated his work on the film, he records Congo, as he watches the film noir-inspired reenactment of torture. Even though the director objects to it, the old man calls for his two grandsons to come and see the scene with him. At first, he jokingly remarks to the children that grandpa is being killed, but they don’t have to worry because it is only a film. Then all of a sudden, he is clearly affected by the footage and asks Oppenheimer the puzzled question: “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” to which the director replies: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse – because you know it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.” After a short reflection Congo responds: “But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh”. When he speaks the last sentence, he almost breaks down and cries. We are witnessing the gradual insight of a murderer. The implications of this scene are overwhelming. It becomes clear just how closely related self-deception and self-knowledge can be, and the unpredictable repercussions of seeking the truth are put on display.

Murder and corruption exist as blatant forces in the Indonesian society.

On a general thematic level, The Act of Killing grapples with the highly sensitive subject of genocide, most famously addressed in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust epic Shoah (France, 1985). In many ways, this landmark documentary can be seen as a forerunner of Oppenheimer’s endeavor.  The challenging task undertaken in Shoah was how to convey personal aspects of the experience, without indulging in using the well-known historical material with which most of us are already familiar. Lanzmann solved this problem by recontextualizing the past through the present and constructing his filmic narrative out of specially situated interviews with survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of the Holocaust. Thus, it was the act of repetition and the resulting reverberations that constituted the attempt at representing the inaccessible historical trauma.

Oppenheimer’s strategy is quite comparable. He also reactivates the past in the images of the present. The shocking surprise is not so much found in the film’s display of factual information as it is situated in the interviewee’s different recollections of the past. They vary from the giddy, yet strangely troubled reenactments of Anwar Congo to the frighteningly cold and calculated statements made by his fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry. The latter operates on the chilling, guilt-free logic that when it comes to armed conflict and politically motivated killings, history is always written by the winners.

“It is forbidden to kill. Therefore, all murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.” This famous quote by French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire, which opens the film, seems frighteningly appropriate as a point of departure for understanding the type of mentality displayed in The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer has made a challenging documentary, which relentlessly revisits its subject and lets the murderers blow their trumpets so loudly that they fall silent. _


Director Joshua Oppenheimer,

Denmark/Norway/UK, 115 min.

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