Where do you start with a film as extraordinary as this?
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is a fearless piece of film-making that confronts the horror of mass murder but also introduces us to the perpetrators so that we get to know them as men as well as monsters. More than that, the technique that Oppenheimer uses magnifies the horror of what they’ve done by getting them to re-enact their grisly deeds as if they were scenes from movies. It makes for chilling and distinctly unsettling viewing.
The film revolves around Anwar Congo, an ageing Indonesian gangster with a penchant for loud shirts, dancing, Elvis movies, torture and killing. But he’s no remorseful murderer trying to find redemption. He’s a hero to present day hoodlums and powerful paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth for his exploits during the 1960s when he, along with others, murdered thousands of Communists (ie anyone who disagreed with the ruling regime).
Still feared and revered, Congo and his cronies recount their gruesome crimes with relish. They proudly call themselves gangsters, saying the word derives from an English term for free man, casting themselves as defenders of their society against dangerous and subversive elements.
The film moves into more surreal and contentious territory when the gangsters start reliving the details of murders rather than just talking about them. They dress up, wear make-up and get sets made for grotesque reruns of the intimidation, violence and murder they specialised in during their ‘heyday’ which was not only condoned by the state but is still celebrated by it.
The Act Of Killing is shocking in ways you would and wouldn’t expect. The depths of murderous depravity that took place in Indonesia at the hands of these smiling, joking old men is a profoundly disturbing thing to see repeated, albeit in play acting form. I wasn’t even aware of these atrocities which cost the lives of over a million people in 1965.
That well-worn phrase about the banality of evil used about the Nazis resonates here too as we see these vain, arrogant, self-righteous men talking about the practicalities of mass murder, of the need to wear dark clothes, the best way to strangle someone or how to crush their neck under a table. This is murder as a mindset, as a lifestyle choice, as they imitate and outdo their heroes from gangster movies and westerns.
The horrors of the Nazi regime and the Rwandan genocide sprung to mind while watching The Act Of Killing but mostly I kept thinking about Colonel Kurtz, Conrad’s soldier-turned-crazed-despot in The Heart Of Darkness, re-imagined as a Vietnam war movie by Francis Ford Coppola.
The twisted morality and corrupted society Kurtz presided over in fiction are the reality of what happened in Indonesia in the mid 1960s. The Act Of Killing is hard to watch, excruciating at times, but it is a remarkable, must-see film. The most disturbing thing you’re likely to see this year. Or any year.