Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act Of Killing may be the most chillingly audacious and haunting piece of work to arrive in cinemas this year. It arrives on a wave of critical coos and paragraphs littered with praise, yet at the same time the people urging you to watch this film seem slightly tentative, as though they’re nudging you toward something you might reproach them for later. As though The Act Of Killing is something difficult to prepare for.
It is difficult to prepare for. I thought I was ready for it. Yet I walked out of the cinema like a shell shock victim, trying to piece together how I felt about some of the most harrowing, improbable filmmaking I’ve ever encountered.
The Act Of Killing takes us to Indonesia, and, for Western eyes not always focused on world affairs let alone those of 50 years ago, it reveals the not-so-secret history of Anwar Congo and Herman Koto; two ‘gangsters’ (and that word appears a lot) working in connection with the Pancasila Youth in the mid 60’s who were responsible for the slaughter of over 1 million ‘communists’. Congo himself is said to have personally killed over a thousand of his countrymen. Oppenheimer offers them a unique opportunity to recreate their atrocities as pieces of cinema. As Congo and Koto are both huge fans of American crime and action films, they seem to jump at the chance to play behind the camera. And so the movie presents us portraits of these men as they put together some rather unusual reconstructions.
It’s hard to say what’s more provocative here from the outset; the men themselves, who appear without remorse or regret, who have gone unpunished and are still idolised by the public, or the startlingly surreal imagery that they create to express themselves. We open with a parade of badly choreographed dancers shimmying beside a giant fish, whilst a waterfall sequence in which Congo is thanked by his victims to the tune of ‘Born Free’ is beyond bizarre. It’s nearly unthinkable. “This isn’t fake,” they sing, “Peace, peace”.
At the beginning of their journey – which focuses of Congo for reasons which will become apparent later – the men seem utterly disconnected from the horrors they have committed. Congo takes us on a tour of the yard where he did most of his killing, dancing playfully, laughing, then demonstrating his effective killing methods. Priorities seem gobsmasckingly out of proportion – they have no problem committing mass murder, but an unpleasant smell cannot be tolerated. Congo talks of how he has managed to live on through music, dancing, alcohol and drug use (marijuana and ecstasy) and at this moment you get the first sense of the wall of denial that Oppenheimer’s project is about to crumble.
Congo, Koto and Oppenheimer continue to guide us for the opening stretch of the picture, illuminating how this situation became possible, painting a picture of not just incredible corruption but of a culture adrift from any defined direction or purpose. Into this complex and unsettling situation, the violence of Hollywood movies has, unwittingly, become an inspirational guide for how to beat, torture and kill. When speaking of his methods, it is the likes of John Payne and Al Pacino that are sourced as inspirations for Congo. An unsettling reminder of the awesome influence of Western culture. These men take pride in their sadism, blithely comparing themselves to the Nazis.
More than in any horror movie I have ever seen, The Act Of Killing presents the tangible existence of evil. It writhes on the screen. And smiles. And doesn’t mind that you can see it. Confronting this film is an almost suffocating experience. These men without conscience…
Yet, as things progress Congo reveals he suffers nightmares. Sees the faces of the men he has killed. They make light of their pasts, but Congo is clearly troubled by his choices. Filming begins, and Congo and his cohorts respond differently to their reshaping of history. Congo and Koto oversee things dressed in gory make-up seemingly unnecessarily – masking themselves or connecting with their victims through changing their faces? One man tries to distance himself from what happened feebly. And Congo’s spirits seem to sink. He is growing more and more troubled by the project, whereas Koto seems happy to dance in drag and hoot and enjoy himself. The contrast between the two is telling. Oppenheimer focuses on Congo – a man coming to realise just what it is he has done.
It has taken the movies to get him to unlock. Oppenheimer’s film suggests storytelling and lies are connected so deeply with our own psyches. There are layers of truth here. Layers of realities. Within the film we even watch Congo watching the film. Somehow we must unravel all of these things to find the core. Congo becomes deeply upset when shooting a scene in which he plays one of his own victims. What happens from here is jaw-dropping and utterly, utterly bone chilling. We revisit the yard where he committed so much murder. Compare this visit to the one at the top of the picture.
The Act Of Killing dares us to sympathise with a monster. Congo grows humble. The carefree bravado reveals a scared, small man, troubled by ghosts. That ‘Born Free’ musical number a fleeting attempt at wish-fulfilment. An impossible lie. He looks out over a night sky and muses, “Imagine in all this darkness… it’s like we’re living in the end of the world”.
I have truly never seen anything quite like this film. It’s appeared like an aberration. The whole project seems so unlikely and the result so staggeringly disarming as to beg disbelief. “It’s okay, right? It’s only a movie, right?” Wrong. Shattering doesn’t even come close to the effect of this film. Provocative doesn’t cover it. As audience members we are left with a hundred and one indelible images, a hundred and one questions to ask ourselves. How do we feel about these men? What is our role as outsiders? What are the limits of creative expression and how can it be used as a tool to heal – or as a tool to deny, to obfuscate? The Act Of Killing is a must-see. But don’t even try to prepare for it. You won’t be able to.