The Act of Killing is among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting—a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.
In the early 2000s, Joshua Oppenheimer, a now 38-year-old documentarian from Texas, was living in Indonesia researching a film about labor unions when he began to hear whispered stories about a massacre that took place between 1965 and ’66. In this under-documented atrocity, the country’s newly installed right-wing dictatorship ordered the slaughter of something like half a million suspected “Communists” (including intellectuals, union organizers, and ethnic Chinese), making use of local thugs and paramilitary organizations to carry out their death edicts. But Oppenheimer soon found that his subjects were afraid to tell their stories publicly—an understandable fear, given that many of the men who had murdered their family members still hold powerful positions in their community. The killers, though—that was another matter. Oppenheimer began to notice that, far from cloaking their deeds in shame, the perpetrators of the atrocities were eager to brag about their four-decade-old exploits in graphic detail. After his labor documentary, The Globalization Tapes, was done, he decided to make another film—one that would allow the killers not only to tell their own stories, but to re-enact them as grisly pageants complete with costumes, makeup, and props.
The choice to incorporate elements of fiction, fantasy, and Hollywood genre filmmaking into the documentation of a recent historical horror was a wildly risky gambit on the filmmakers’ part (the film was co-directed by an Indonesian who, like all the Indonesians on the crew, is credited only as “Anonymous.” Werner Herzog and Errol Morris—both known for their ambitious experiments with the traditional documentary form—served as executive producers.) But the result is far from disrespectful to the memory of the massacre’s victims. On the contrary, by exploring the fantasy lives of the killers (in which they imagine their murderous past selves as cowboys, film noir gangsters, or the heroes of kitschy musicals staged near waterfalls), the film cruelly exposes the process by which even the most damning truths can be transmuted, with time, into self-mythologizing fictions.
The Act of Killing was filmed in the town of Medan in North Sumatra, where its two chief subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, were among the most feared executioners during the purge. Nearly 50 years later, they still wield enough local power that when they set out to recruit extras for a house-burning re-enactment, few of the terrified townspeople dare to turn them down. In one early scene, the dapper, charismatic Congo demonstrates his garroting technique on a smiling underling, then dances an impromptu cha-cha on a roof he once used as a killing chamber. From there, things get ever stranger and sicker, as the production value of the assassins’ filmed re-creations mounts in tandem with the scale of the violence they recount. Dressed as cowboys, the men ride to the rescue of a woman (an elaborately cross-dressed Herman Koto) who turns out to be a Communist traitor. Later, they coach a group of local children in the art of pretending to beg for their lives—an exercise which, not surprisingly, quickly reduces the frightened kids to real tears. (The killers’ offhanded psychological abuse of even beloved children—as when Congo takes his grandsons onto his lap to watch video of gramps being fake-tortured—is one of the hardest-to-watch elements in this never-easy film.)
There are moments—especially in the highly stylized dance numbers that begin and end the movie, involving identically dressed showgirls who emerge from an enormous concrete fish—when Oppenheimer could be accused of aestheticizing—and hence distancing himself and us from—the raw suffering his film otherwise fearlessly explores. And while I get that this documentary’s purpose isn’t didactic, I wish I’d left the theater knowing a little more about the cultural and historical context in which these horrors occurred. But the choice to identify the killers’ merrily sadistic exploits with the history of Hollywood cinema isn’t some arch postmodern affectation on Oppenheimer’s part. The analogy comes straight from Congo and Koto themselves, who before they were conscripted as government hit men worked as “movie theater gangsters,” scalping tickets outside the local cinema. Congo cites John Wayne and Al Pacino among his tough-guy influences, and recalls the feeling of walking out of Elvis Presley pictures in a cheerful mood, ready to take on the day’s killing with a smile. As viewers, we’re privy to the grinding gears of the multiple defense mechanisms (denial, repression, delusional grandiosity) through which Congo, Koto, and their former colleagues manage to carry on with, and even enjoy, their lives. “War crimes are defined by the winners,” a death-squad leader points out. “I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.”
It’s the killers’ crowing, unrepentant impunity—we witness as their exploits are celebrated by the president and vice president of Indonesia in public ceremonies, and praised by the cooing female host of a stomach-churning TV talk show—that sets The Act of Killing apart from most documentaries about genocide. This isn’t a truth-and-reconciliation scenario in which survivors are brought forth to confront their oppressors (though the director is currently at work on another film that will do just that with one Indonesian family affected by the massacre). With its relentless focus on the pathologies, both personal and sociopolitical, that enable ordinary human beings to commit mass murder, The Act of Killing is resolutely uncathartic. The film ends, harshly and unforgettably, on the repeated, unproductive dry heaves of a once-prolific executioner who, after watching himself play the part of his own victim in a mob movie-style re-enactment, has begun—maybe—to grasp that his actions all those years ago ended dozens of lives just as real and human as his own. He heaves and heaves, but there’s nothing inside to come out.
Read Errol Morris’ Slate essay about The Act of Killing.