Between October 1965 and March 1966 it is estimated that up to one million people were killed and 1.7 million imprisoned in Indonesia in a genocide targeting suspected communists. The mass killings were enacted by the army, backed by the government, with help from gangsters, paramilitary groups and civilians, none of whom have had to face justice since which has been helped by widespread ignorance in the West.
The main focus of this film is on reconstructions which American director, Joshua Oppenheimer, invited a small number of executioners to carry out, creating some truly surreal scenes as the two main protagonists, Anwar Congo and Herman, ‘the fat man’ as Anwar often refers to him, direct the scenes in different genres. Taking inspiration from Hollywood, there are torture and murder scenes in the style of a Spaghetti Western (Anwar is a big fan of John Wayne) or American gangsters. Others are more realistic retellings, literal blow-by-blow accounts.
It becomes easy to forget that the images are based on their personal crimes and are not the stories of fiction that we’re used to. Only in the details do you get shaken back to remembering that they are the perpetrators, in the guttural final breaths acted by Anwar or the jerking legs of a simulated strangulation victim. Often these scenes are crowded with cronies in hysterics, demonstrating the absolute impunity which these murderers enjoy; you can tell they saw these things everyday for months and became so used to it that now it is routine. Other times – especially towards the end of the film and usually following Anwar – the scenes are prolonged and so silent. It is truly staggering.
The exceptional thing about this film is that is it not bleak. It is candid and occasionally very funny (Herman is always – inexplicably – in glittery drag). They say that ‘history is written by the victors’ and that is true here but in an entirely unprecedented way. The Act of Killing achieves what most documentaries don’t: unmediated insight into the subjects’ minds and decisions. It may sound odd to say that because the executioners are allowed to construct fictional scenes as they wish, but it is the consequential mental and bodily reactions by both perpetrators and extras which tell the story. The moments of banality too – Anwar chooses his costume saying “for massacres I always wore jeans …you need a heavy material’. As Oppenheimer remarked, the stories the men made reflect the narratives they have created over the years which allow them to justify their crimes.
It also features some of the worst prosthetics you have ever seen. But that doesn’t matter, it enhances it because you become even more aware that the actions were once real.
It has clearly been a long road to completion for Oppenheimer, who began working on this film in 2005, interviewed many of the executioners – Anwar was the 41st – and compiled over 1400 hours of footage. Every scene is compelling (even in the 2 hour 40 minute director’s cut) and the scenery beautiful. The combination of banality, boasting, honesty and surrealism is extremely powerful and not something you can prepare for.
Joshua Oppenheimer said in the Q&A that he thinks everyone in Indonesia should see this film. I think, and I’m sure he would agree, that everyone in the world should see it.
City Screen is holding another showing of The Act of Killing on the 6th August.
Please also visit tapol.org for more information on human rights work in Indonesia.