You have never seen a documentary like director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and you’ll probably never want to again. An unblinking gaze into the banality of evil, this is a warped phantasmagoria of denial and delusion that’s essential viewing, even if, at times, it’s almost impossible to watch. When it was over, I had to go walk around for a couple of hours to shake off what I had seen. My notebook contained just three words: “There be monsters.”
In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, who then hired paramilitary groups and gangsters to execute more than one million so-called “communists” in less than a year’s time. Divorced from any ideology, the term “communist” applied to anybody who dared to disagree with the new regime or just those unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These war criminals are still celebrity figures in their homeland, and in 2004, when Oppenheimer was in Indonesia working on his previous project, The Globalisation Tapes, he found them cheerfully bragging about their many massacres. The most sickeningly bloodthirsty of the bunch, Anwar Congo and his porcine sidekick Herman Koto, turned out to be avid cinema buffs. Nicknamed “the movie theater gangsters,” they fashioned themselves after Hollywood stars of the era, and even claim to have adopted certain killing techniques from their favorite films.
In a twisted stroke of genius, Oppenheimer eventually offered Congo and company a chance to recreate the slaughters of 1965 and 1966 as a movie of their own making. The Act of Killing is a jumbled-up head-trip of shockingly blunt interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the group’s boastful re-enactments. It plays like a nightmare parody of entertainment journalism—where all the creative talent are also mass murderers.
Now a senior citizen, Congo is a slightly built fellow who bears a darkly ironic resemblance to Nelson Mandela. The dissonance is jarring, watching him casually explain how beating people to death got too messy and tiring, so he devised a more efficient, much cleaner method of strangling them with wire. He happily demonstrates, taking care to point out that he never would have worn white pants while doing this for real because they stain too easily.
We’re told time and again that the Indonesian word for gangster comes from “free man,” and these barbarians are celebrated as folk heroes for their swagger. The most jaw-dropping sequence in a film that has no shortage of them finds the cast promoting their production on an inane talk show. The perky hostess chirps vapid praise for their “extermination of the communists” as a studio audience applauds.
There’s less enthusiastic participation from former cohort Adi Zulkadry, who arrives back in town wearing a T-shirt that says “Apathetic” and doesn’t answer when Congo asks why he never returns phone calls anymore. Zulkadry has a less romantic view of their old crusade, openly acknowledging that they tortured and butchered countless people who probably didn’t deserve to die—but it was war, and it’s over, and that’s that. Oppenheimer grills him a bit about the Geneva Convention, only to be dismissed with the words: “War crimes are determined by the winners. Guantanamo was legal when Bush was in power.” Zulkadry doesn’t hang around for much of the movie shoot, last glimpsed shopping at an upscale mall with his family, untroubled and at peace.
Congo, on the other hand, has a tough time sleeping these days. Now fancying himself an impresario, he starts adding surreal musical numbers and nightmare sequences to the script. For some unknown reason, a lot of these scenes feature Koto dressed in drag like a malevolent Divine. One time, he’s playing a pregnant murder victim; another, he’s a cannibal ghost eating Congo’s liver. Their project began as a glamorous old-fashioned gangster movie, but it’s quickly turning into a psychological meltdown.
While the foulest of these figures still lounges around blithely reminiscing about how much he loved to rape 14-year-olds, the process of reliving it all for the cameras is stirring something buried for decades inside of Congo. The Act of Killing’s title begins to cut both ways, until Congo’s taking a turn as a torture victim shatters whatever emotional distance he’d always placed between himself and his prey.
There’s a poetic justice here that no doubt attracted executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris to stump for the film: a murderous movie buff undone by the power of cinema. Watching his actions onscreen guts Anwar Congo in ways that words never could. The production finishes with the old man screening his footage and retching uncontrollably, countless atrocities finally come home to roost.