Stage Blood on Their Hands
It probably wasn't Joshua Oppenheimer's intent as a filmmaker to help me drop Indonesia from my "Places I Might Like to Visit Someday" list--but he did, so I have.
In 1965, that country's military reacted to a failed Communist coup by deputizing scores of citizens as warlords and vigilantes. More than half a million people were slaughtered during this purge of known and suspected Communists, who were so dehumanized as to make their killers national heroes. Oppenheimer's unrelentingly bleak documentary, The Act of Killing, follows a group of these now elderly murderers on a journey of remembrance, if not repentance.
The film's central figure is Anwar Congo, an affable, lively guy who might remind you of Nelson Mandela--if Mandela spent his golden years boasting about the innovative techniques he employed in killing a thousand people. He takes Oppenheimer on a tour of the rooftop patio where he and his friends beat dissidents to death before discovering the much-cleaner piano-wire-strangulation method used in The Godfather. Yes, Congo was one of many "movie theatre gangsters", whose days were divided between scalping tickets outside of cineplexes and offing national traitors in various locales.
Even more shocking than Congo's cavalier attitude is the degree to which every level of authority in Indonesian public life was involved in the genocide. The publisher of the country's largest and most influential newspaper, Ibrahim Sinik, hosted Congo and his main enforcer (a big, dumb brute named Herman Koto) in his office as they interrogated, tortured, and killed suspected Communists. Their actual guilt or innocence was, Sinik admits, irrelevant.
Had The Act of Killing simply been an exposé of these heinous crimes and the whitewashing of history that allows monsters to roam not only live freely but powerfully, that would have been enough. But I don't know that it would have been possible to make such a film. From the footage Oppenheimer captures, much of the population still lives under an anti-Communist spell. How much of this is due to fear and how much is due to actual nationalism is unclear--but I get the impression that a bunch of Westerners with cameras and pointed questions barging into the country would have been met with at best confusion and at worst hostility.
Which is why the film's conceit is so brilliant. Oppenheimer uses Congo and his friends' obsession with violent American movies as a back door into their twisted brains. In exchange for full access to their lives, he gives them all the equipment and resources they need to create a film about the murders they committed. From re-enacting beatings and strangulations to bloody knife-play, and culminating in the documentary's greatest set-piece--the rape, torture, execution, and immolation of an entire village--Oppenheimer's crew captures all the dark glee of rotten men reliving what they see as the finest moments of their lives.
What's most upsetting about this scene is the fact that the "extras" are average citizens. Women and children are mock-beaten and terrorized by the very people who have the power to make them disappear in real life. After the village shoot, one woman is seen being revived after collapsing, while several toddlers cry inconsolably. During an early take, a local official who'd dropped by to oversee the festivities comments on Oppenheimer's crowd-work. He was concerned that the ferocity with which his army had called for the dirty commies to be wiped out might place them in a negative light. The spirit, he argued, was fine, but he didn't want them to come off as savages.
Towards the end of the picture, Anwar Congo begins to question whether or not he is a good person. Decades of nationalistic encouragement and brainwashing had led him to view Communists as an alien threat that must be defeated for the good of all Indonesia (much like, I imagine, the aliens from Independence Day). But in seeing Oppenheimer's footage and re-living his youth through the prism of age, he finally seems to appreciate the fear and suffering he'd wrought. He even convinces Oppenheimer to help him re-create a recurring nightmare in which he's haunted by the demonic embodiment of his victims' outrage.
While a very compelling (and convenient) through-line, I question the authenticity of this blood-thirsty Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation. It feels racist to say that an entire governing class of people is incapable of self-actualization, short of seeing unflattering versions of themselves in a movie. But that's what we're presented with here. At the end of the film, Congo spends several minutes dry-heaving loudly on camera. The optimist in me hopes he's learned a valuable lesson, and will perhaps use his remaining years to advance human rights in his country. The cynic in me, who has just spent two hours watching this man and his friends dream of the fame they'll garner upon the film's release, wonders if the upset stomach is a symptom of metamorphosis--or an attempt to cover his ass.
It's possible that Congo has seen not only the error of his ways, but also the writing on the wall. Could he believe that, once Oppenheimer's documentary goes big (as it certainly has), he and his friends might find themselves on trial? Throughout The Act of Killing, there are passing mentions of consequences, most of which are laughed off. But in the film's final moments, it is unclear where the true manipulation lies.
Does Congo think he's playing us? Or is he being sincere? And what, exactly, does the director hope to achieve with his documentary? Is his goal greater Western awareness, and perhaps intervention? He succeeds in painting a convincing, one-sided portrait of inhuman monsters who need to be stopped at all costs. But as the film cuts to black, we're left to question if either man, Congo or Oppenheimer, has really learned anything from1965.