The Act of Killing | Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer | Release Year: 2012
Rating: NR | Run Time: 1hr 55min
The Act of Killing is one of those films will drain your spirits and tug at your morality for hours after the credits stop scrolling. But it’s also one of those films that shouldn’t be missed. During 1965-1966 in Indonesia, a mass genocide was enacted against “communists” and the ethnic Chinese. It is reported that over 500,000 were killed during this time.
This documentary, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer with Errol Morris and Werner Herzog as Executive Producers, follows Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, two former executioners. Oppenheimer asks them to reenact their killings in a film. They opted for a Hollywood crime, Western, and musical mash-up. It wasn’t nearly as funny as it sounds.
The film introduces us to many politicians such as Syamsul Arifin, the governor of North Sumatra and Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the extremely misogynistic leader of the Pancasila Youth. According to the film, the Pancasila Youth has over 3 million members and the organization played an integral role in the 60’s genocide.
Throughout the film, the politicians and executioners speak of the importance of gangsters to a free society. As the filmmakers note, freelance gangsters and the paramilitary were enlisted by the government to complete many of the killings during the genocide. The notion that gangster stood for “free man” in English is consistently propagandized in speeches by politicians and is perpetuated by the Indonesian media. Their definition is, of course, a stretch. As a native English speaker, it’s obvious their definition is a stretch.
The governor of North Sumatra, Syasmual Arifin, so eloquently stated:
“Communism will never be accepted here, because we have so many gangsters and that’s a good thing. The word gangster comes from English. ‘Free men.’ Thugs want freedom to do things, even if they’re wrong. But if we know how to work with them, all we have to do is direct them.”
The Act of Killing is hard to watch, not only because its main characters are brutal killers, but also because they are so flippant about what they’ve done. Anwar Congo shows us early on how he and other executioners learned to kill with minimal amounts of blood. They initially killed by beating their victims to death, but the stench from the blood and dead flesh was unbearable. So they began strangling the communists and Chinese with metal wiring. Anwar later explains that this was also effective because the victims couldn’t grab ahold of the wire as it cuts into the skin.
One of the most disturbing recounts was told by Anwar. He and other executioners would watch Hollywood movies before partaking in executions. They’d walk over to the paramilitary office (where many executions took place), still happy, dancing, filled with the movie’s mood. Congo would give the person he was going to kill a cigarette with a dance still in his step. “It was like we were killing…happily.”
By giving the executioners the opportunity to reenact their atrocities, Oppenheimer presents his subjects in a unique manner. It was a nice change-up from talking heads or actor reenactments. The absurdity of the executioners’ “film” further reinforced the horrific nature of their crimes.
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries on subjects I was unfamiliar with, but The Act of Killing has been by far the most startling. We all know about the genocides enacted by Hitler, the Soviets, and Mao. For some reason (I have my suspicions), the Indonesian genocide is less talked about, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware of the magnitude. It’s a film that should be watched and discussed. I’m glad to see it received an Oscar nomination, if not the win. The Oscars took the safe route once again.