Documentaries tend to fall into one of two categories – an awe-inspiring view of the world or a look at how awful the world is. The Act of Killing falls into the latter.
When the government was overthrown by the military in 1965 in Indonesia, over one million communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals were killed in less than a year. Small time gangsters were promoted to death squad leaders with Anwar Congo and his friends being part of the most notorious death squad in their city. These men were never punished, instead treated as heroes.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is a strange watch. These killers re-enact their crimes in genres of their favourite films. Nothing is stranger than the large musical number where these murderers dress in elaborate costumes , singing “Born Free” in front of a waterfall. For them, this is a bit of fun. For us, it is stomach churning – how can these men make light of the atrocities they’ve committed? It is very unsettling.
Somehow Oppenheimer manages to create compassion for the evil men who have committed these astonishing crimes, simply by giving them a human face. When Anwar is asked to play the victim in one of the recreations, he has a strong emotional reaction to it – almost a realisation of heinous crimes he committed.
By re-enacting the murders through various genres, it gives us an insight into the heads of otherwise incomprehensible men. These men brag about their crimes, hang out with governors and see nothing wrong with what they have done. Over the course of the film it appears that some of the “characters” begin to realise the extent of their crimes. Those who committed these crimes start to come to terms with what they’ve done, becoming sickened by what they’ve done, who they are and how the act they’ve put on over the years has protected their sanity. Meanwhile, the people who have looked up to these criminals have the veil lifted. Herman, a man who idolises Congo and was only ten at the time of the crimes, has his eyes opened to the evil acts of the man he admires so much.
While the film is a fascinating look into something that Indonesia has long pretended never happened, The Act of Killing demonstrates a society built on fear, violence and threat. Not only does it show what happened in Indonesia but demonstrate what humans are truly capable of.
The Act of Killing is a bold documentary capturing man’s infinite capacity for evil. While we know what Anwar Congo did was evil and we cannot forgive him that, the film somehow manages to get us to empathise with him but have us being unable to dismiss him as a monster.
Get my reviews straight to your inbox with my monthly newsletter. Click here to subscribe!