NR, 115 min.
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
Featuring: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin, Ibrahim Sinik, Yapto Soerjosoemarno Safit Pardede, Jusuf Kalla, Adi Zulkadry, Soaduon Siregar, Suryono
You might think that the Nazis were terrible. They were, but the men in “The Act of Killing” make the Nazis look like moral paragons. This frightening documentary looks at men who were leaders of death squads in Indonesia in 1965, when they executed countless communists in a political cleansing. Now, those same men, who are still an important part of the leadership of the country, have been asked to make a movie about their experiences in 1965. “The Act of Killing” documents their efforts as filmmakers.
These are men who see themselves as national heroes and believe the rest of the country does as well. They are not unaware that many people may resent them for their brutal actions, but somehow cannot begin to conceive why. In the making of their movie they explain how they based much of their attire and attitude on Hollywood movies. They called themselves “movie theater gangsters” and profess that the meaning of gangster is “free man,” which seems to be a definition they invented for propaganda purposes. They also try to recruit citizens to play the communists in reenactments. Nobody seems very eager to take them up on their offers of stardom.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s access to these men is unprecedented. They are incredibly candid for the cameras, explaining their methods of execution and even admitting to lies and cruelty, but they’re so convinced that their cause was for the good of the country that they don’t see any wrong doing in their actions. Yet in observation, the documentary reveals them to be little more than schoolyard bullies, influencing people through their brutal reputations and empty bribes, all while justifying their past brutalities with a false caring about their current image in the eyes of the citizenry. It’s all quite frightening to witness.
One man, the central figure, Anwar Congo, does seem to feel some hidden guilt about his past actions. There are times he seems to glimpse the monster that he is, but he never recognizes these feelings of remorse for what they are. There is a great deal of masculine posturing about these men, including the nearly comic figure of Herman, who dresses in drag for many of the movie scenes. It obvious that along with thinking of himself as more of a man than most men, he also sees himself as more of a woman than most women.