Genre: Docu Drama | Country: Denmark | Year: 2013 | Dir: J Oppenheimer
Imagine if Hitler didn’t die and lived on to become the supreme leader of Germany, and turned it into his little playhouse to endlessly massacre people whenever he pleased. This is what happened to Indonesia, a country whose history isn't congruent to the beautiful vistas shown on TV. In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, and any citizen who opposed the military dictatorship was accused of being a communist and executed. In less than one year with the direct aid of the army, local gangsters and the CIA, over one million 'communists' were murdered.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing doesn’t just chronicle the horrors of 1965, but takes an insane new direction. It doesn't give us a history lesson but instead taps into the psyche of people who were proud of committing the genocide, and questions how someone who has indulged in unspeakable violence views their actions and dodges guilt. The film focuses on one former executioner, Anwar Congo, who agrees to enact the killings in a faux film about the genocide. At first he and his accomplices are very pleased with what they did, but as the filming and the enactment goes on, he begins to see the horrors he's committed and begins to regret all the brutality of his past. It’s a searing plot device and the film becomes what every documentary sets out to be – something different. An average filmmaker could have made The Act of Killing about the victims but Oppenheimer makes it about the murderers.
That said, The Act of Killing is a terrifying watch. The scenes where Congo and his friends cheerfully enact the way they killed different people with minimum and maximum suffering is one of the most chilling things you’ll experience in a film this year. In one scene Congo proudly takes a wire and demonstrates the cleanest way to strangle someone. In another scene he wears a cowboy hat and gleefully shows that he executed a man with a coffee table leg on his throat. He even does a cha-cha dance on the rooftop of a building where he slaughtered a dozen people, with no semblance of remorse. Sometimes there was even an orchestra playing as the throats of men, women, and children were slit, and the army encouraged people to kill innocent families. It’s maddening, to say the least. There is surrealism in the reality and reality seeping out of the surreal movie-within-a-movie segments. You end up questioning the definition of reality and justice and makes you wonder if the latter truly exists or even matters in our world.
The film was backed by the legendary Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and it is not surprising that it won top honors at the Berlin film festival. Director Oppenheimer does a swell job of making you simultaneously hate, empathize with and even laugh with Congo. The latter part makes you feel guilty when you realize you’re laughing with a mass murderer making jokes about murder, and the fact that the film elicits this emotion in you is testimony to its power. Oppenheimer builds up a crescendo where Congo finally experiences the full force of fifty years of guilt and self-loathing in one long poignant scene. Like Herzog’s own films, it reveals attributes of human nature through the extreme. The irony this film exudes is that Congo the executioner reflects most humans, and that these same people won't recognize that fact.
Every large nation has a bloody secret, and The Act of Killing drives home the message with large doses of the horrific, the funny and the fantastic. It’s a tad disturbing to find the parallels between the horrors charted in this film and the events that transpired in a certain part of India years ago. The head honcho of Indonesia was never tried for his war crimes and continued to become the most influential politico of the country. Many were arrested without trials and many more were killed. Moreover it is now taboo to talk about the incident and it’s become a sort of a public secret that could be erased from history texts. Sound familiar?
(First published in DNA)