An Examination of Accepted Brutality
What happens when evil becomes accepted? When it’s not only allowed, it’s praised. Celebrated. Spoken of with pride? History is full of crimes against humanity but when an entire country is involved, we all ask, “How did they let that happen”? It’s difficult to imagine the whole of Germany allowing Nazism or the Russian gulags operating for half a century. In the documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer examines the phenomenon of accepted atrocities without the need for historical references or archival footage. He goes straight to the people responsible.
The Act of Killing takes place 40 years after fall of the Thirtieth of September Movement, a 1965 coup d’etat of Indonesia. Repelled in just a few days, the incident caused a McCarthy style witch hunt with communists being the prime targets. Over the next two years, over 100,000 enemies of the state were slaughtered at the hands of privately hired death squads. Many of the gangsters involved in the slayings are now boastful paramilitary leaders and well known citizens. They not only admit to the crimes but smile about it, confident in what they did was best for the nation.
Oppenheimer, sensing something in their pride and swagger, gives them the tools to make a movie about their experiences forty years ago. He allows them to tell it their way without any filters. The Act of Killing documents the creation of their movie and serves as a complicated yet eye opening look into the acceptance of evil and the toll it takes on the human spirit.
The star of the show is Anwar Congo, one of the original death squad leaders and founding father of Pemuda Pancasilla, the country’s reigning paramilitary organization. On the outside, Anwar is jovial and light-hearted, even as he talks about his many methods of dispatching political enemies. His happy-go-lucky charm and pride for personally killing over a thousand people undercuts a lingering despair. This central morality question, one of duty of government versus crimes against the spirit, is at the core of the film.
Oppenheimer directs it all with control and balance, allowing the now geriatric gangsters to react and even ham it up for the camera. According to Anwar and his crew of now powerful political figures, they did nothing wrong. The communists were a plague that needed to exterminated and not only did they gladly do so, they were rewarded with fame and riches. Oppenheimer never gives an opinion or blinks cinematically, even when they talk of proper garroting technique with a smile on their face.
As the film progresses and they start to shoot their extermination methods, the documentary becomes more surreal. Scenes of feigned ransacking of homes bring real tears to the faces of the local “actors” and simulated moments of torture, gives rise to long suppressed emotions. Anwar’s arc in particular is one of the most fascinating self-realizations in recent history. The doc is also exceptionally well crafted, as Oppenheimer uses the actual film footage to provide the juxtaposition between the group’s perception of the 1965 events and the emotional reality.
When the credits start to roll, there a few big names that pop up. Werner Hertzog and Errol Morris are labeled as producers. The production companies all get a plug. Five editors get mentioned. But there’s one contributor who stands out, one name who makes everything on screen seem more real, more dangerous.
As the credits scrolls downward, the word rolls by in a stream. Second camera, production manager and recording engineer. Assistant directors and gaffers. All people who’d rather be faceless than risk being involved in a volatile exposé on the country they call home. The Act of Killing is an important, heart-rending view into the world of systematic corruption. It may not answer the question of why the Indonesian killings happened over 40 years ago, but it sheds a harsh, bright light on the men responsible for carrying it out and in turn, tells a haunting story of the cost of wanton brutality. The best documentary of 2013.
Score: 9 out of 10