By Tom Nixon
Joshua Oppenheimer’s singularly disturbing The Act of Killing has successfully broadcast the massacre of Communists in mid-1960s Indonesia to a wider audience, but it’s less a talking-heads exposÃ© than a provocative psychological study of a culture characterised by institutionalised violence and denial. Subversively sidestepping archival footage and manipulative victim sob-stories, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a small knuckle of Sumatran gangsters, each of whom played a key role in one of the genocide’s most notorious “death-squads”. Nowadays, they’re powerful, prestigious members of a corrupt and oppressive paramilitary organisation, in conjunction with both the government and media.
The wily executioner chewing up most of the runtime with his weathered smile and candid recollections, is Anwar Congo, introducing himself by demonstrating a decapitation-via-chicken-wire technique with the kind of deadpan, self-satisfied efficiency you might expect from the cookery channel â€“ it’s best to avoid a mess. His closest buddies are Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto; one a defiant relativist, coldly insisting ethics are an arbitrary man-made construct and might makes right; the other a feral buffoon who happens to be running for parliament, when he’s not indulging his penchant for cross-dressing.
Congo has been struggling with bad dreams just lately, but he and his shady companions gladly exploit any opportunity to wax nostalgic about the bloodthirsty times of old â€“ all admirable displays of heroism in service of idealistic, honourable goals. After all, says Congo, the word “gangster” is derived from “free man”, and the Communists were impinging on their freedoms. Congo and Koto were promoted to the death squad ranks from selling tickets, on the black market, for foreign movies the Communists allegedly banned.
The men admit they modeled themselves on characters from those same movies, consciously evoking the ghosts of Al Capone and Tony Camonte with their grisly deeds, and so the film’s title reveals itself to have a double meaning. Killing Communists wasn’t just an action but an act; they lived the genocide as though starring in their own Hollywood gangster yarn. Itâ€™s a revelation that forces cinema to wrestle with its own complicity in their crimes, mirroring the self-scrutiny Oppenheimer seeks to elicit from the killers themselves. He requests that they re-enact their most vivid memories as movies, externalising the past in order to confront it. Congo and his pals are only too happy to oblige, often at the very site of the original slaughter.
Contributing to the filmâ€™s escalating notoriety is the decision of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, both men obsessed with the relationship between nature and artifice, to sign on as executive producers. Their support increasingly makes sense as …Killing becomes, in the director’s words, “a documentary of the imagination”; a hallucinatory splurge of anxious, disconcerting images bubbling from the cracks separating fiction and reality. Two conflicting impulses collide again and again in the subjects’ compositions; the need to discover the truth, and for that truth to rest as lightly as possible on both reputation and conscience. “Your acting was great”, Koto encourages a distraught youngster, “but stop crying”.
The main difference is that the executive-producers’ subjects tend to be a more amiable brand of oddballs, whereas Oppenheimer never lets us forget just who we’re observing. Amidst gory beheadings and fond reminiscences of child rape, the scene that best encapsulates the madness and burns itself into the retina presents nothing more than Koto cleaning his teeth, swilling with the absurd ferocity of a man cleansing his soul of bile, letting it gush out over his belly. It’s a chilling microcosm for a culture built on a sea of blood, fortified by nothing but rationalisations and delusions, just one rupture required for the truth to come flooding in.
The genre-styled re-creations of butchery and mayhem jarringly echo Hollywood classics, and the lines blur between the gangsters’ memories and our own, melting the usual safety buffer the screen provides. Each film-lover is forced to consider whether their lust for movie violence makes them kindred spirits with the monsters onscreen. Occasionally we bear witness to clips from a bizarre, lavishly choreographed musical, wherein Congo’s victims thank him for sending them to heaven â€“ Born Free blaring on the soundtrack. It’s a ludicrously contrived way of absolving himself of accountability. This is drama-therapy like no other.
The film climaxes with Congo watching himself act in a victim’s place, asserting that he â€œfeels what they feltâ€. Oppenheimer retorts that they felt far worse, because it really happened to them. The voice is steeled, outraged, but there’s no doubt he’s relieved to see his methods finally reaping rewards. Much of the film has Oppenheimer giving voice to remorseless mass-murderers and misleading them as to his intentions, stepping into a number of ethical minefields in spite of having showcased cinemaâ€™s ability to inspire horrendous acts. The dangers are evident, so Congo’s first step on the road to remorse is the money shot Oppenheimer was hoping for, proving his control over the material and making a case for ends justifying means.
Congo proceeds to stalk the scene of his offences, retching with such visceral agony it must be seen to be believed. Embedded though we are in the film’s meta-cinematic layers, the rawness of this emotional response removes any suspicion over the sincerity of his epiphany. Meanwhile, by demonstrating its power to provoke positive change in those it once helped to corrupt, cinema completes its own uneasy redemptive arc alongside the distraught protagonist.
Film critic Tom Nixon is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.