There are three lines uttered in Joshua Oppenheimer’s bone chilling and electrifying documentary and bizarro film studies experiment The Act of Killing that will resonate long after the credits roll and dozens of “anonymous” credits scroll along the screen.
The first comes early on as a set up for the history surrounding Oppenheimer’s look at paramilitaries and gangsters responsible for eliminating a perceived Communist threat in Indonesia in the 1960s.
“Communism will never be accepted here because there are so many good gangsters.”
Using one of these gangsters – the well dressed and almost grandfatherly looking Anwar Congo – as a focal point for a larger production, Oppenheimer starts by focusing on the history of a country that hasn’t healed in the decades following the wholesale massacre and displacement of over 2.5 million of its former residents at the hands of thugs willing to be paid by the government to kill and shake down without remorse.
It’s a country where many of the offenders have been elevated to status as heroes to a certain percentage of the population despite mass beatings and a penchant for choking people and decapitating them with strips of wire. The Pancasila Youth, one of the foremost paramilitary organizations that’s often described as a band of gangsters, still has three million members and is going strong today. Congo and several others look back on their careers with an almost weary fondness for the glory days that’s frankly sickening and disturbing, but also the by product of the idolatry that was seemingly lavished upon them in the wake of their actions and their efforts to keep the red threat at bay.
The second line comes when Congo stands in front of a group of families – most of them children – and former cohorts, spoken by someone far too eager to relive the past and teach the children in the room:
“Show us how to kill.”
The sequence is a rehearsal for Oppenheimer’s larger project, co-directed by collaborator Christine Cynn and another Anonymous helmer who probably was also the anonymous cinematographer. To help understand their history and get to the heart and ego of these former tyrants, the filmmakers allow Congo and his former mates to unleash the Marlon Brandos and Al Pacinos they secretly see themselves as by letting them recreate their crimes in the style of any kind of fictional film they want.
The former gangsters try their hands at everything from musicals to gumshoe noirs, but rarely do they question their motives. It really only comes up twice. Once when a man breaks down while filming the re-enactment of a village getting slaughtered and he asks if they are supposed to be telling the truth or a fiction. Another time it comes in the form of a man – who actually enters the film getting off a plane wearing a T-shirt that has the definition of the word apathetic written on it – simply asking how hard it would actually be just to apologize for what they did.
The answer isn’t so simple, and it underlines the contradictions that make The Act of Killing so fascinating. If they apologize, it not only weakens the organization that so many still rally behind, but it would also paradoxically show that they were lying about the Communists being cruel and potentially open them up to prosecution if their already grand façade were to come tumbling down.
The final, and perhaps most chilling words spoken, come from a man with no remorse and exactly the type of deranged personality that would sign up to recreate his own crimes for the purposes of education and entertainment:
“War crimes are defined by the winners.”
The man who states this almost directly into his rear view mirror looking back at Oppenheimer from behind the wheel of his car almost dares the filmmaker or anyone else to try to send him to Geneva. He says by doing so at this point in the current political climate (where the Vice President will readily have photo ops with paramilitary organizations), the exposure from such a trial would only make him more famous and well regarded than he already is.
It’s a thought that finally punctuates the rest of the film to come and how the audience experiences it. It’s a true Heart of Darkness moment, but not in the sense that actual atrocities are being committed on camera, but in terms of how far Oppenheimer has gone to try and get some sort of understanding for them. It’s like nothing that’s ever been attempted on film, and likely could never be replicated.
NOTE: This review was written as a result of screening the 115 minute theatrical cut. At the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, they will be screening the 160 minute director’s cut at 2:45pm daily. All other screenings are the theatrical cut.