The Act of Killing is a major achievement in documentary film-making. It shows cinema's capability as a medium of inquiry, confrontation and remembrance. Joshua Oppenheimer has extended the scope of cinema. The Act of killing is a human experiment in lines with infamous Stanford prison experiment, only much more complex. It is an ultimate film within a film.
Two and a half million people died at the hands of the death squads in Indonesia and now the same people get to make cinematic re-enactments of their days of torturing and killing. It was one of the biggest genocides in human history, in which two and a half million Communist sympathizers were exterminated following the military takeover of Indonesia in 1965, which led to the overthrow of President Sukarno's government. This genocide was actively supported by Western governments.
What is so appalling is that in Indonesia, perpetrators think that they have done a good act by cleansing Indonesia from Communists. Idea of ‘Gangster’ is glorified. Politicians keep telling in there public speeches that Indonesian word for gangster is 'preman', derives from the English 'freeman'. Propaganda films are shown at schools where Communists are portrayed as cruel, amoral and degenerate. We hear men talking about the thrill of raping adolescents. We see a smiling television news anchor who works for a propagandist channel, speaking to Anwar about his heroism in killing the Communists. It feels like wandering in Germany forty years after holocaust and seeing Nazis still in power.
The protagonist in this film is Anwar Congo, local thug who made money selling movie tickets on the black market. He was hired by the military to carry out regimented killings. Later he becomes one of the most notorious death squad leaders from the 1965 killings operating out of Medan in North Sumatra, who killed thousands of Communist sympathizers. We first see Anwar wearing bright Hawaiian-style clothes, speaking about what a good dancer he is, doing the cha-cha-cha on a rooftop which was the site of hundreds of killings he carried out in 1965. He explains how he would smash people's heads in, and how the terrace was slippery with blood. He then shows Joshua how he came up with the idea of strangling people with wire, because it was so much cleaner. He like other gangster whom we see in the film, take immense pride in telling their story of heinous crimes.
As the film unfolds, we start relating to Anwar as a human being because we feel his doubt. His conscious is still alive. He lies to himself to justify what he has done. He needs to dehumanize communists because it's much easier to live with yourself if the people you've killed are not fully human. We start understanding that why all the gangsters are so boastful about there crimes. If a whole society commits a mass murder and they tell lies to justify it, they do it not because they are evil, but because they are humans. They need lie to live with what they've done - that is to say, they write a victor's history in the form of propaganda.
When the film ends we don’t feel sense of closure, we feel uncomfortable. We feel uncomfortable because unlike other films ‘The Act of Killing’ doesn’t allow us to paint the mass murders as inhuman beings, which we are not thus allowing us a sense of closure. What ‘The Act of Killing’ does is that it gives a human face to the perpetrators. It’s extremely hard to reconcile the fact that a man, who mends the wing of a baby bird, can vivisect a human baby.
The Act of killing is not a historical documentary about the mechanics of what happened, but it is an enquiry about human cruelty. It forces us to confront our most painful truths.