A shot of black, rippled ocean water fades in and out. Cut to a shot of beautiful women in golden gowns, dancing out of the mouth of a large building shaped like a fish. The directors of this scene are former members of the Indonesian death squads, who killed over a million “Communists” — anyone perceived to be a potential dissident — in 1965-66.
The Act of Killing sets a new benchmark in the developing trend of hybridizing documentary with elements of narrative filmmaking. It’s the brainchild of American documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, who was struggling to make a film about the Indonesian killings when he got the idea to turn the cameras over to the murderers themselves, to re-enact what they did. The result is a trip into a surreal dimension — a grisly Alice in Wonderland world of upside-down logic and carefree torture and murder, garnished with guileless, absurd fantasies of colorful, cascading happiness. And even more interesting is the effect of the re-enactments on the killers’ psyches.
No one has ever been called to task for the killings, and those responsible have a variety of attitudes about what they did. Executioner Avi Zulkadry claims to feel no guilt at all, and blithely brings up Guantanamo, the slaughter of American Indians, and even Cain and Abel to rationalize the murders he committed. Ibrahim Sinik, a newspaper publisher who falsified testimony and handed people over to the death squads, is beyond cynical: “Why would I do such grunt work? Why would I kill people? I didn’t have to! One wink from me and they’re dead!”
The film’s principal characters are Anwar Congo, who was an executioner in 1965, and his friend Herman Koto, also a former executioner and still a gangster and paramilitary leader today. Gangster activity in the ’60s was centered on ticket scalping; the Communists tried to ban the big, hugely popular Hollywood movies of the time. Anwar lights up as he describes coming out of an Elvis movie, still dancing, still in the mood of the film, and going to the paramilitary office to kill people. “It was like we were killing… happily!” But Anwar also has recurring nightmares, and is particularly haunted by the memory of a man whose head he chopped off with a machete, the gurgling sound that came from his body and the fixed stare: “All I could think about was why didn’t I close his eyes?” While Herman dives into directing the re-enactments with his characteristic swagger, Anwar becomes increasingly quiet and contemplative.
The 1960s purge seems to have left the Indonesian power elite in a state of arrested development. Oppenheimer gathers incredible first-hand evidence showing a country ruled by a gangster/paramilitary oligarchy that enforces corruption at all levels of society and yet, interestingly, claims to represent an ideal of freedom. Throughout the film, people repeat the idea that the origin of the word “gangster” comes from “free men,” but what they refer to seems to be a freedom from growing out of an adolescent mindset, a freedom from the inherent constraints of feeling compassion. One of many examples: the leader of the all-powerful Pancasila Youth paramilitary group shamelessly telling his female caddy, in front of his golf buddies, “You definitely have a mole on your pussy.”
But it’s the reenactment scenes directed by Anwar and Herman that are the core of The Act of Killing. Starting with small scenes of capturing Communists, their filmmaking gets more and more ambitious. Anwar increasingly chooses to play victim roles. Herman decides the film needs more entertainment value, and, incredibly, starts dressing up in wildly glamorous, over-the-top drag, in a variety of looks. They shoot sadistic interrogation scenes as well as comedic scenes involving rape and gore; the opening scene of dancing women evolves into a kitsch masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. At one point they re-enact the massacre of an entire village, complete with (suggested) rapes. They set fire to the huts. Reality and fiction blur, as the young men playing paramilitaries get whipped up into a genuine blood-thirsty frenzy, and the on-screen “victims” are genuinely traumatized, left crying or in shock.
It’s hard to fully convey the richness of the powerful, penetrating footage Oppenheimer has woven into the film, the countless visual ironies and resonant details, the layers of meaning. Equally impressive is the staggering candor he gets from his subjects. Oppenheimer shows a preternatural ability to engender trust, but beyond that, he seems to tap into the killers’ gut-level need for someone to challenge them — to hold them to some credible parameters of right and wrong — so they can confess or justify or process and make sense of what they did.
Late in the film Oppenheimer brings back the image of the black ocean at nighttime. Anwar points an ineffectual flashlight at it: “It’s like we’re living at the end of the world,” he says. “We look around… there’s only darkness. It’s so very terrifying.” There’s a primal, childlike fear of the dark at the center of his psyche. In a sense, it relates back to the gangsters’ anger over the Communists trying to turn off American films. In a final re-enactment in which Anwar plays a blindfolded victim, bringing him to experience a devastating breakthrough, it comes to full fruition.