At some point during The Act of Killing, your brain will simply want to shut down.
It’s difficult to describe, much less process, what this documentary captures. So I’ll start with some facts: From 1965 to 1966, mass murders were carried out in Indonesia in the name of anti-Communism. Those who declared themselves Communists or were suspected of being Communists or were simply guilty of being Chinese were slaughtered at the hands of paramilitary groups and the local criminals recruited by them. The number of victims was somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million. That’s the population of a large American city, in case you were wondering.
Today in Indonesia, this is hardly a source of national shame. Indeed, the murderers are celebrated as heroes, to the point that a handful of them were eager to talk to documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer about their past. What’s more, they restage the murders in intimate detail, offering, for example, a tour of the benign rooftop that once served as a killing factory. There, they demonstrate how a length of wire would be tied from a pole to a victim’s neck and then yanked, because that method resulted in the least amount of blood. The piece de resistance – if that’s the right phrase – is an elaborately costumed musical fantasy “directed” by some of these men, in which one appears as some sort of benevolent god and another is dolled up in drag. It’s all hard to fathom and almost as arduous to watch.
The central figure is Anwar Congo, a lanky, elderly man with puffs of white fuzz for hair. He gives that rooftop tour, sniffing with annoyance at memories of the smell of blood and bragging about being the one who developed the cleaner, more efficient killing technique. Later, while Congo is watching footage of himself giving this tour, we wait for the self-awareness to sink in and some sort of conscience to emerge. Instead: “I never would have worn white pants.”
It’s all hard to fathom and almost as difficult to watch.
It isn’t only the lack of repercussions that emboldens Congo and the other murderers we meet. It’s also the magic of the movies. We learn that many of them, in the 1960s, were involved in the exhibition of American films and surrounding criminal enterprises. For them, these pictures weren’t only a business; they were a lifestyle. Having modeled themselves after the gangsters they saw onscreen, they now see Oppenheimer’s documentary as another shot at stardom. Congo also observes, at one point, how sadism sells at the box office. He sees his murderous past as a present commodity.
As you can see, I’m trying to explain Congo’s reasoning. By “understanding” him, perhaps I’ll be able to make some sense of all of this. Yet The Act of Killing intentionally keeps comprehension at bay, and therein lies its moral forcefulness. The documentary refuses to allow us to reconcile what has happened. And so we get a scene reenacting the slaughter of a rural village, in which the perpetrators play younger versions of themselves and the current residents of the village play the former victims. Waiting for his call to the set, a paramilitary official wistfully describes the pleasure of raping 14-year-olds. Someone calls for action, fires are set and screams fill the air. When the filming stops, the child “actors” continue bawling. One woman sits on the ground, apparently catatonic.
It’s here that we finally see a crack in Congo. Looking around at the recreated horror, he mumbles the word “regret.” Later, while watching a scene in which he played the part of a torture victim (he wanted to show it to his young grandsons), Congo asks the camera, “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” Then: “Have I sinned?”
I won’t disclose whether or not Congo answers that question. I will say that The Act of Killing ends with one of the most devastatingly candid moments I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Part historical document, part character portrait and part art project, The Act of Killing ultimately registers as something altogether more powerful: an exorcism.