I’ve never quite seen anything like Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary ‘The Act of Killing’. With its horrific subject matter, the film is extremely difficult to watch. Oppenheimer was born in my native state, Texas, but now resides mostly in London. Eight years ago, he embarked on a mission to Indonesia to document the victims of the government sponsored genocide of Communists following the 1965 military takeover.
After interviewing some of the victims, the director met a few of the perpetrators who actually carried out the brutal killings. Eventually, his entire film focused on the killers, with no time given to the victims. In an original take on the documentary genre, Oppenheimer allowed these mass murderers not only to laugh and talk fondly about their murders, but even to re-enact them in the form of their favorite types of films, which include old-school gangster movies, horror, and even a musical comedy. These criminals are completely unapologetic about what they did.
The documentary mostly follows Anwar Congo, now an elderly man who looks strikingly similar to Nelson Mandela. Congo was one of the lead gangsters that carried out the government sanctioned murders of Indonesian Communists in the ’60s. He has killed over one thousand people. Yes, you read that right – one thousand. The government formed paramilitary death squads and hired local street thugs to carry out the killings. Before his mass murders, Congo was a movie ticket scalper. He happily describes how he killed his victims, and explains that his favorite method was strangling them with metal wire, because it was fast and easy to clean up.
Congo wasn’t alone in the murders. He was joined by another man who now has a family, seems to be well off, has no remorse and is quite enthusiastic about his murderous past. He even gloats about killing his girlfriend’s father because he thought the man was a Communist. We also get a glimpse of some of the paramilitary soldiers, one of whom brags about raping 14-year-old girls and killing them. The camera follows a few of the state’s leaders and military officials as they travel from local business to local business, shaking down the shop owners for money and threatening violence if they don’t pay enough.
At a certain point, everything comes back to Anwar Congo, who finally starts to show a hint of remorse for his past evil deeds. He’s still haunted in his nightmares by the ghosts of his victims and sometimes wakes up scared. In particular, he’s terrified of a guy he beheaded with a machete in the middle of a forest, but didn’t close his eyes after killing him. In another pivotal moment, he decides to play the victim in the film, and one of his friends will play a version of himself. As he gets heavily bloodied in makeup, his favorite method of killing is performed on him, which causes him to break down in disbelief that he’s done it to so many people.
Not only do we see these evil men still alive today – happy, unapologetic and still thinking the same way – we see parts of Indonesia that are solely run by the paramilitary and gangsters, without any hope. It’s truly frightening. These evil men are protected by their country and will never receive a single ounce of punishment for what they did.
‘The Act of Killing’ is extremely difficult to watch. At times, you’ll want to get out of your seat and demand these men be brought to justice. It’s sad, powerful, important, and must be seen. There is a reason that iconic filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers on this. ‘The Act of Killing’ is a chilling film, one that you won’t soon forget.