Note: Spoilers? There are some fairly specific plot details below; that being said, I don’t think knowledge of any of this would spoil your viewing of this film.
The Act of Killing was getting a lot of buzz this time last year after getting snubbed before the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards. However, I never got around to watching it. Tonight, with the itch to watch a documentary I decided to finally watch what I knew would be a somewhat nauseating film…I SEVERELY underestimated this film. Joshua Oppenheimer landed on a gold mine with this content and the unbelievable access that he had to it, but he strung together this disturbing narrative with masterful filmmaking.
The documentary follows aged, self-proclaimed ‘gangsters’ who were part of a para-military group responsible for the 1965-66 killings of communists in Indonesia. In this short amount of time, it is believed that one million people or more were killed in these massacres. (Honestly, this was a historical event I knew nothing about prior to this film. Check out the Wikipedia page for more info). These former war-lords are eager to work with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer in an effort to tell the story of the brutal acts they have committed.
Let me be clear: they are eager to tell these stories. These men are proud of what they’ve done. They describe themselves as brutal, cruel, sadistic and want to make a blockbuster-style movie documenting the acts that they committed. They recruited locals to play many of the victims, some of them young children. After acting out a horrendous scene in which a village was massacred by these para-military gangsters, many of the children were visibly upset, having confused this disturbing ‘play-acting’ with reality.
There are three or four men who are at the center of this story, but Oppenheimer gets the best footage from Anwar Congo. Early in the film he and a friend go to the rooftop of a shopping facility to gleefully explain how they used to bring people to this location to be killed. He explains how they used to beat the captive people to death, but there was too much blood so he invented a cleaner, more effective method of choking people to death using a wire. He simulates this act using a wire on the rooftop with a smile.
As the filming continues, it is clear that these men feel varying shades of remorse for what they’ve done. Some have rationalized it in order to assuage their guilt, others refuse to acknowledge the evens as morally reprehensible. However, as Anwar watches these scenes being re-told in front of him, a simulation of the things he did as he now looks on as a third-party, the gleeful confidence we see on that rooftop at the beginning of the film begins to wane.
One of the most powerful scenes in this documentary happens when Anwar is acting out a scene in which he is the victim; this time he is being tortured, fake blood on his face and in his hair, and the wire that he was so confident in using to kill others is wrapped around his neck to simulate a killing. After a moment, Anwar indicates that he has to stop, removes his blindfold and indicates that he “can’t do that again”. He is visibly shaken, weak and almost appears as if he is going to pass out.
Oppenheimer chose to film Anwar and his friends watching the footage that they had shot, and it might have been the most valuable part of the film. After watching most of the film, Anwar asks Oppenheimer to show him the scene in which he is being tortured and killed with the wire. He becomes incredibly emotional questioning, “Is this how the people I did this to felt?”. In over thirty years, this seems to be the first time that Anwar has entertained this kind of empathy and it overwhelms him.
In the final scenes, Anwar and Oppenheimer return to the rooftop where some of the earlier scenes began. This time, in a much more somber tone, Anwar explains again how this was the spot they used to bring people to die. As he draws attention to the wire and the bags they used to remove the bodies, he convulses and he begins to retch. He leans over a bench and heaves as if he is trying to turn himself inside out, physically trying to eliminate memories of all the heinous things he has done. This wasn’t your college Sunday morning “Oh-my-god-why-did-I-drink-all-of-that-tequila?” retching, it sounded like audio that had been stolen from The Exorcist.
Oppenheimer made a follow-up film last year titled The Look of Silence which follows an individual whose family member was murdered by these ‘death squads’ in the massacre. I am very eager to watch that and anything else Oppenheimer may work on in the future. It would be wrong to credit Oppenheimer entirely for the quality of this film, there were a wealth of other people involved (including executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris). Many of the crew and producers were not willing to put their name on the film because of a fear of retaliation from these gangsters in Indonesia; ‘Anonymous’ is credited 49 times in the closing credits.
I could not take my eyes off of this movie, I was SO impressed. And disgusted. And I probably won’t sleep well tonight, but this was incredibly well done. I would highly encourage anyone watching this who has a relatively strong constitution; there’s nothing visually explicit in the content, but the aloof manner in which the taking of lives is discussed is difficult to sit through.
Bonus: The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are both streaming on Netflix right now!