They say that reality is stranger than fiction, but rarely has reality been as surreal as in The Act of Killing.
“I wouldn’t have worn white pants for massacres, I usually wore jeans,” offers the amiable Anwar Congo as he laments the lack of realism as he watches himself re enact the slaughter of alleged communists. He is wearing the unrealistic white pants as he demonstrates a throat slitting technique he learnt from watching mafia films on his friend. Beating people to death caused too much blood and it smelt terrible he confesses. Then he does a dance.
Anwar is a hero in Indonesia – still to this day, celebrated on talk shows, appearing at rallies and being visited by local politicians. In 1965-66 he was a leader in the pro regime paramilitary group Pancasila Youth, who following the military coup slaughtered an estimated million communists (read unionists, ethnic Chinese, intellectuals) with impunity. Anwar thinks he personally killed about 1,000 and it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile the brutality of his deeds with this stylish and affable septuagenarian. In fact he brags about it, delighted to demonstrate his deeds for the camera.
In the extra features director Joshua Oppenheimer suggests that Indonesia is like what would have happened if the Nazi’s had won the war. Discovering these atrocities whilst on a chance visit to Indonesia, he originally intended to film the victims, however even today it was too risky. When his next-door neighbour invited him to dinner and began bragging about his exploits Oppenheimer elected to take a different route.
Oppenheimer and his unknown co director invited Anwar and his paramilitary cohorts to make a film to celebrate their exploits and Act of Killing is the making of this film – from casting to production.
What makes this film so remarkable is that is the genuine charm of Anwar. He can go from tales of nostalgic stories of his past as a gangster or “free man,” to graphic descriptions of slaughter. In a community ruled by corruption and in fear of the paramilitary, Anwar is either celebrated or feared.
The self-directed scenes from the film are harrowing and Oppenheimer actually films Anwar and his cohorts watching themselves. Anwar even gets his grandchildren to watch a particularly gruesome scene. Oppenheimer asks Anwar if it’s good for them to see such violence. Anwar replies that it’s important – it’s their history. After the scene, one woman forced to act in it is catatonic and children are crying, almost inconsolable.
It’s complex and hypocritical, Oppenheimer’s mix of behind the scenes of Anwar’ highly stylised film, then Anwar watching it back again, helping his grandchildren to tend to injured animals and interacting with the paramilitary group Puncasila, is almost impossible to reconcile. In the directors commentary he does with executive producer Werner Herzog Oppenheimer calls it “walking the tightrope between empathy and repulsion,” and it’s what makes it all so remarkably horrific. Their offhand discussions of murder are harrowing, their re-enactments impossibly gruesome, over the top exercises in unrealistic gore. Then the monkeys come down and eat the fake blood.
You will never see anything like The Act of Killing. It’s beyond excessive. Brimming with contradictions there is an impossible tension throughout the film, and Oppenheimer at times seems to be a willing accomplice. Yet periodically he will insert himself into the film via his voice, asking a pertinent question or challenging Anwar and his henchmen. These moments offer immense relief, as there is something utterly repulsive about The Act of Killing, a film in desperate need of a moral compass. One of the most challenging and disturbing films you will ever see.