The Act of Killing: the most astonishing, disturbing, original film I’ve seen in years

July 22, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

We interrupt this blog to urge you to go and see an extraordinary film about Indonesia’s aging executioners. Here’s an extract from an NPR review, the The-Act-of-Killing-008wikipedia synopsis and the trailer, which gives a sense of its unique combination of the ‘banality of evil‘ of the old men, and the surreal quality of their reenaction. That must be down to its director Joshua Oppenheimer (interviewed here), but it’s no surprise that Werner Herzog signed up as executive producer once he’d seen some early rushes.

I’m no Indonesia expert, but it seems to  get beneath the skin of a country that is often described with reference to its shadow puppet theatre – nothing is as it seems etc. I’d love to hear the views of Indonesians, or people who know the country and its history.

First the NPR Review:

“Genocide in Indonesia.” Those words probably don’t make you want to rush out to see a new movie. But what if we add these: Genocide in Indonesia, with gangsters, cowboys, dancing girls, men in drag and splashy musical numbers. They’re all part of the year’s strangest documentary, The Act of Killing.

the_act_of_killing2The opening (left) looks like something from a demented Bollywood musical. Costumed girls come dancing out of the mouth of a giant fish, frolicking under a waterfall as a director barks at them to look happy, happier. Standing with them, also getting soaked, are two men, one slender and dressed as a priest, the other fat, in a turquoise satin gown.

These two are notorious Indonesian death-squad leaders — men who slaughtered countless civilians they accused of being communists after a military takeover in 1965. And they are not shy in talking about what they’ve done.

But the filmmakers didn’t want a talking-heads documentary, so they offered them a different option: re-enact their stories in whatever cinematic style they like. They like mob movies, and musicals. And this bizarre scene is part of one such re-enactment.’

The synopsis:

When Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in 1965, the gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in Medan (North Sumatra) were promoted from selling black market movie theatre tickets to leaders of the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra, as part of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966. They also extorted ethnic Chinese, killing those who refused to pay. Anwar personally killed approximately 1000 people, usually by strangling with wire.Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of the right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila that grew out of the death squads.

The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to genocide. A regime was founded on crimes against humanity, yet has never been held accountable.

Invited by Oppenheimer, Anwar and his friends eagerly re-enact the killings for the cameras, and make dramatic scenes depicting their memories and feelings about the killings. The scenes are produced in the style of their favorite film genres: gangster, western, and musical. Various aspects of Anwar and his friends’ filmmaking process are shown, but as they begin to dramatize Anwar’s own nightmares, the fiction scenes begin to take over the film’s form, leading the film to become increasingly surreal and nightmarish. Oppenheimer has called the result “a documentary of the imagination.”

Some of Anwar’s friends realize that the killings were wrong. Others worry about the consequence of the story on their public image. Younger members of Pemuda Pancasila argue that they should boast about the horror of the massacres, because their terrifying and threatening force is the basis of their power today.

After Anwar plays a victim, he cannot continue. He says that he feels what his victims have felt. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, points out that it was much worse for the victims, because Anwar is only acting, whereas they were being killed.’

From today’s perspective, the film’s main impact may be in showing the depth of links between the executioners, today’s political leaders and the 3 million-strong Pemuda Pancasila paramilitaries. But that assumes anyone in Indonesia will actually see it – the online reviews suggest it was initially only being shown in secret in Jakarta.

There were times when the film seemed to breach some pretty basic ethics, not least in the obvious trauma of people (including children) drafted in to play victims of the death squads. In an interview with the Jakarta Post, Anwar Congo also claims he was tricked into making the film and has never seen the final version (though it’s hard to feel sorry for him). But the overall result is unforgettable.

And finally, the trailer

July 22, 2013
Duncan Green