I just watched a movie of incredible power. It is a documentary called The Act of Killing. Although I will attempt to tell you what this movie is about and why you should see it, my words will fall short. A true work of art, it reflects the world back at us in all of its complexity and mystery. This is a work that largely dwells upon the horrors of the world, but there are also moments of strange beauty and absurd comedy. It manages to look back upon a political event and yet step outside the space and time of those politics. At its core it is about human beings.
In 1965 and 1966 there was a communist purge in Indonesia. It is roughly estimated that 500,000 people were executed in mass genocide. The movie focuses largely on two people, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, whom led one of the death squads. Anwar Congo is reported to have killed 1,000 people. Because their side won they have never been punished for their actions. In fact there is now a right-wing paramilitary organization called the Pemuda Pancasila that rose to power out of those death squads.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews Congo and other people surrounding the massacre. However, this is no simple work of nonfiction as Oppenheimer gets the participants of the original massacres to recreate what they have done in a movie. They get actors, extras, and sets, and film these men recreating what they did in the past.
In the beginning of the film these men are bragging about their pasts. They think of themselves as gangsters that have come right out of American cinema. However, through the recreations and the in depth interviews, without spoiling anything, their feelings become more complex.
There have been plenty of movies about the horrors of war, mass murderers, sociopaths, genocide, and the darker side of human history. This movie is unlike anything that I have seen before. Although there is no real onscreen violence depicted in the film, it is often hard to watch. Given the movie’s subject matter, this should come as no surprise. However, the men in this movie aren’t so much judged as observed in all of their complexity. If anything this makes the acts that they have committed all the more chilling. One realizes in watching this film that they are watching people, and not some monster that has no ties to our species.
It is important to note what a strong role the imagery of this film plays. This film conveys an ecstatic truth and not just the truth of accountants, to paraphrase Werner Herzog who is also one of the producers. The lush beauty of Indonesia is often captured, conveying the folly of man at the forefront all the more stark. I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. There were also several dream like sequences that give the film a meditative quality about mystery of the world. In what kind of world do we inhabit that acts such as these exist?
The director also has a subtle eye for capturing the absurd. There is one scene where someone is describing the atrocities that they committed while their family goes shopping in a posh western style shopping mall. The garish colors and ridiculousness of political campaigns are also captured. While watching the film I couldn’t help but think about the political campaigns in our country and if seeing these less refined versions was akin to seeing the emperor with his clothes off.
Although a certain amount of information is upfront in this movie, and I think that most people would find something gripping in it, it definitely is an interpretive documentary. By that I mean that aside from telling an engrossing story, this movie also touches upon many deeper questions just because of where the director chooses to focus his lens. It has more questions in it than answers. As hard as this movie can be to watch, it will expand the way you see the world. Yes, it really is that good.