The Act of Killing could have been extremely dangerous if mishandled. When director Joshua Oppenheimer was unable to tell the story of Indonesia’s 1960s genocide from the perspective of its survivors due to the danger in which he would place them, he instead chose to tell it from the perspective of its perpetrators: the death squads that murdered as many as one million so-called communists between 1965 and 1966, and who Indonesia now celebrates as war heroes. Focusing on a handful of movie-obsessed gangsters and finding that they were more than willing to divulge every detail of the atrocities they committed, Oppenheimer suggests he gives them the means to make a film of their deeds/ The result is one of the most surreal, dizzying, and, eventually, harrowing making-of documentaries ever recorded.
He gives them the floor to dramatise their story, and in turn they create a bizarre gangster epic, full of scenes where they ransack and burn villages full of women and children and strangle people with wire, but also surreal musical interludes in from of glistening waterfalls and beautiful girls dancing out of the mouth of a giant fish sculptures. So many of their artistic decisions defy explanation – one character is constantly in drag, and in one interrogation scene all the actors have prosthetic burn makeup on for no apparent reason – that it often seems downright silly, these murderers bumbling their way through the oddest movie ever made with nothing but their charm and charisma.
Because they are charming and charismatic, and the balancing act that Oppenheimer performs is to allow his subjects’ likability to stand alongside the acts they’ve committed without one overshadowing the other. He wants to show us that otherwise kind people can do terrible things, that cruelty is something that people do rather than something they are. Anwar Congo smiles and dances the cha-cha-cha on the rooftop where he killed thousands of people, but he exudes warmth and love when caring for his granddchildren. Herman Koto may seems like a harmless buffoon until we see him threatening Chinese market-stall owners for bribes. Throughout the film moments of uncomfortable levity push up against moments of extreme gravity, the film’s tone defined by the discomfort caused when the viewer is successfully entertained by war criminals.
Good and evil, Oppenheimer suggests, are not objective concepts. In one illuminating scene Oppenheimer asks one of his subjects whether he realises that he has broken international law; he replies that “war crimes are defined by the winners”, that this is how war has worked throughout the world. These people are celebrated throughout Indonesia as heroes, their actions sanctioned by the Indonesian government and funded by the US, so why shouldn’t they boast? During a television interview, they are given a round of applause after explaining that they developed a way of killing communists humanely from gangster movies, that the etymology of the word for gangster comes from “free men”, that they have set their country free with their actions. It’s a scene of weightless propoganda but there is the sense that this may be something that everyone is aware of. Backstage, watching them on the monitors, someone asks “Don’t they feel haunted?” This sense of unease that everyone has with their status quo, that behind the scenes there is this niggling feeling that maybe genocide isn’t okay, and its Oppenheimer’s focus upon these moments that pushes The Act of Killing past what could have been a pointless and insensitive provocation.
In its closing half-hour, the film focuses increasingly on Anwar Congo, a gangster who seems more haunted by his past than the others. In the process of making the film, he becomes increasingly troubled by his past and eventually, watching his performance back, confronts it. In the emotional explosion that follows Oppenheimer’s intentions become clear: a whole culture has closed itself off to the cruelty it has committed, and by allowing them to create these images of cruelty, he allows them to expose themselves to themselves. Oppenheimer has stated that this film is for Indonesia and that he wants it to bring about change. Incredibly, he may have done this by simply letting people state facts, and for giving them a space for reflection upon them. At its best, The Act of Killing achieves so much: it works as a satire, as a polemic, as a piece of oddball outsider art, and most importantly, it works as cinema. I can only hope it brings about the change that Oppenheimer wishes – I can’t imagine a better film to do so.