Death and Defiance: ‘The Act of Killing’

The taking of a human life should never be cavalier. It should never be the grounds for sainthood or specialized treatment unless said dealings are strictly within a legal (or sometimes, military) setting, and even then, it’s ambiguous at best. The preservation of life is often called the highest moral value, and to violate it the lowest any person or persons can stoop too outside a claim for God or country. In the Asian nation of Indonesia, Communism was so reviled in the 1960s that the government hired gangsters from the local ghettos as part of a planned death squad, these forces given only one command – get rid of any Reds, with extreme prejudice. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry did just that, rounding up potential enemies of the state and beating them to death for the sheer joy of cleansing their country of undesirables.

Now, four decades later, they are practically giddy over their participation in one of the most heinous atrocities ever to be recorded. The documentary The Act of Killing was eight years in the making, with American-British film director Joshua Oppenheimer earning the elderly men’s trust. In turn, he asks these willing murderers to discuss their crimes and, wouldn’t you know it, they’d rather reenact them instead…for the camera. Under the guise of creating an all out educational epic which will teach the latest generation of a legacy written in philosophical blood, Congo and Zulkadry walk their wide eyed innocent through the various stages of the set-up, the interrogation, and inevitable execution. They also throw in a few musical numbers, seemingly so a friend named Herman can dress in drag and dance with the other hired showgirls.

Never before has one country’s inherent corruption been as brazenly celebrated as it is here. The Act of Killing may have started off as a planned mea culpa, but the end result is an introduction to a bizarro world on the other side of our planet where politicians bribe voters (and said constituency gets mad when someone campaigns with the necessary “gifts”), those in power welcome their connections to those in crime, where paramilitary groups guide political agendas, and everyone is on the take, or at the very least, wants to be. Toward the beginning, someone says that Indonesia doesn’t want democracy. They then argue that not everyone should have a say, continuing a conceit that’s harrowing in its defiance. Once we see that almost everyone has a link to the orange and brown camouflaged Pemuda Pancasila, the organization that grew from the death squads, it’s easy to see why.

Oppenheimer doesn’t direct so much as document, showcasing the disturbing realities of what life was like during the purge of 1965 and 1966. A newspaper publisher, also part of the old regime’s racket, illustrated how he would cajole the captured Communist into confessing, easing the transition to death with proud efficiency. He also illustrates an ongoing arrogance in everything he did. This is a nation and a people who don’t believe they are or ever did do anything wrong, even as a member of Pemuda Pancasila casually walks down the various Chinese owned stalls in the local market and shakes down the vendors for protection and payoffs. They do it in such a calm, matter of fact fashion that we’re stunned by what we see. Even when Oppenheimer confronts the vice, everyone has an answer for it.

One of the most telling examples comes directly from Congo himself. Constantly fussing with his hair, clothing, and teeth, he’s the closest thing the death squads have to a celebrity poster boy. He has been embraced by Indonesia, protected from prosecution (though, as we will see in a moment, not wholly free from critique) and hailed as a hero. A sequence on State sponsored television is so astonishing in its party line particulars that it’s flabbergasting in its blatancy. So when Oppenheimer asks him about The Hague and possible war crimes, Congo welcomes the confrontation. “Bring on (the famed international tribunal),” he says, arguing that every era has its politically apropos atrocities. He then goes on to name check George W. Bush and his backing of Guantanamo Bay. Case closed as far as Congo is concerned.

Throughout, Oppenheimer mixes fantasy with reality, showcasing the amateur recreations with one eye on fact and the other on farce. Congo and Zulkadry (who escaped to another part of Asia to avoid his infamy) are often seen sporting badly done gore make-up, the better to remind the viewer that these men have blood all over themselves, not just their hands. But then their acting is so horrible, their staging so unprofessional, that you wonder if they really think they are making a movie, or just relishing in the repugnancy of their past. This is not history. Instead, it’s hysteria. The Act of Killing is a quasi-confessional where no one feels guilty and everyone enjoys swapping their murderous tall tales.

Toward the end, when Congo takes on the roll of a victim who he systematically decapitated in the woods, things start to change. Next, a recreation of his famous piano wire strangulation technique finally turns the tide. The next day, Congo starts acting odd. He argues with Oppenheimer, suggesting he now understands what his victims must have felt like. Naturally, the filmmaker is skeptical and so are we. Of course, the next sequence confirms our suspicions as he wakes his grandchildren from their slumber to see Grandpa playing assassin. It’s this unique struggle, the dichotomy between remorse and absolute rejection of blame which fuels The Act of Killing‘s central theme. On the one hand, Congo and his pals are pure, unadulterated evil. Yet they all worked in a system which still embraces them to this day, to an ends where everyone agrees the means were justified.

Others can argue over a lack of perspective or that no one from the Communist side is present to speak out against these awful truths, but as one member of Pemuda Pancasila suggests, any dissident dumb enough to complain faces the same fate as before. All in all, over three million people lost their lives to death squads like those manned by Congo and Zulkadry. Each one here boasts of personal tallies in the thousands. They remember everything and are occasionally haunted by their acts, though for Congo said nightmare are the stuff of dreams, not daily lives. Imagine if John Wayne Gacy and Henry Lee Lucas were living in a small town somewhere in the USA and everyone there celebrated their mass murder killing sprees like they were the drafting of a Constitution.

That’s the painful gist of The Act of Killing. These men don’t need to pay, because no one dares demand remuneration. Instead, their fame is founded in death and dishonesty, and for present day Indonesia, that’s just fine.

RATING 9 / 10
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