The Act of Killing: The Director’s Cut (2013) Review
Certificate: 15 Running Time: 2hr 39 Mins
Plot: A documentary which challenges gangsters, who took part in the massacre of millions of Indonesian communists during 1965-66, to re-enact their murderous actions.
In 1965, the Indonesian government was displaced by the radical military. The military banned the Indonesian Communist party (known as PKI) with immediate effect. The PKI was seeking to utilize the country’s natural resources by nationalising foreign mining, oil and plantation firms. The party also aimed to distribute wealth amongst the poverty stricken masses after years of Dutch colonial exploitation. Following the coup, any person opposed to the military dictatorship was declared a communist. Opponents to the rule were those who stood for equality and redistribution of wealth, advocates ranged from trade unions and intellectuals through to penny-less farmers and ethnic Chinese immigrants. Between 1965 and 1966, over one million of the ostracized enemy ‘communists’ were massacred by paramilitary death squads made up of soldiers and civilian gangsters. It is quite possibly the least well known case of genocide in human history.
The extermination has been heralded as a patriotic struggle in Indonesia (and even by the West who declared the genocide as a ‘victory over communism’). Those responsible have enjoyed impunity and have been habitually celebrated as heroes of national sovereignty; remarkably the henchmen have been propelled to authoritative positions as society has lauded them as champion statesmen who actioned imperial justice. Joshua Oppenheimer’s inventive documentary challenges two prominent death squad leaders/gangsters, directly responsible for thousands of killings during the purge, to re-enact their memories of genocide in any form they desired.
The Act of Killing is the most important film of the year and quite possibly the last decade. Oppenheimer’s horrifying task is embraced by the death squad leaders; the result is a distressing yet astonishingly surreal exploration into the dark corners of the human psyche. The dramatisation of such inhumane cruelty is bewildering. Protagonist and perpetrator, Anwar Congo, proudly struts around like a local celebrity, gleefully imagining creative concepts to make a ‘family movie’ showcasing his role in the ‘political cleansing’. The boastful killers film their murderous exploits in contrasting styles reflective of the wildly polarized spectrum of emotion witnessed by Oppenheimer. There are elaborate drag musicals on the North Sumatran hillside, noir American gangster style interrogations, a painfully realistic raid on a local village and even a haunting scene of cannibalism.
One is left in a pensive state of disbelief as to how Oppenheimer has been able to infiltrate and ascertain such candidly open opinions from his subjects; there is a painstakingly disdainful lack of remorse on behalf of the gangsters. As each frame develops, so does Anwar’s introspection. His initial pride sees him dancing whimsically upon a site where he once executed scores of victims. The feeling of guilt iteratively wades its way into a deeper sense of reflection, can a soul rest peacefully having committed such atrocities? It is as though Anwar is seeking some form of closure. The fact that his reign of terror is universally celebrated in his homeland leaves a distinctly sour taste.
The communists are dehumanized to the nth degree, as though a human life is inconsequential dependent on political stance. Oppenheimer’s probing questions will leave you questioning what it is to be human and what it means to have a conscience. Can guilt take a multitude of forms? Are we able to suppress the emotion if we convince ourselves of the merit of our actions? Civilisations have been built upon systemic acts of violence and people will continue to be governed by fear. Is there an in built dimension in man’s character that enjoys the persecution of his peers? Judging by the incomprehensible torment caused by seemingly harmless petty gangsters, this may well be the case.
The investigative technique opted for by Oppenheimer shifts the mantle over to the conspirators, there is no definitive stance taken by the filmmaker to condemn the barbarity and mindlessness of the genocide. Instead, the film takes the form of a naturalistic exposé. How do the gangsters want themselves to be reflected to society in their dramatisation and is this different to how they interpret themselves? Self-profiling leads to conflicting opinions between the group. Anwar has always had problems sleeping (as he remembers the faces of his victims) whilst other friends believe they are justified and vindicated in their actions. The lack of humility and willingness to question their motives is profoundly disturbing.
The Act of Killing is a journey through the perverse imagination of the killers. Oppenheimer hasn’t crafted a condemnation of the paramilitary leaders, their corrosively vacuous actions lend to their self- destruction. The director duly questions the fundamental nature of genocide, are the political and social drivers that allow it to continually repeat itself enduring facets of human existence? There is no single answer to the question; the act of killing fellow man for political gain is endemic. Scenes in this film will leave an indefinite mental scar; the power of Oppenheimer’s harrowing documentary will render you speechless. Prepare to stare into the face of evil.