I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Act of Killing wins the Oscar for Best Documentary. It should certainly be nominated at least, unless it’s the kind of documentary that travels too close to the edge to receive that sort of mainstream awards-ceremony attention. This brave and deeply powerful film — which both re-enacts and comments in detail on the government-sponsored massacre of thousands, perhaps millions, of suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese throughout Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 — is directed by American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (who currently lives overseas), and is executive-produced by master documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
I knew Josh when we were both in college here in Boston nearly twenty years ago now, and we went out on a couple of dates back then. I remember how smart and precocious he was, easily drawn to the bizarre, and always unassumingly dressed in all black: from boots to jeans to t-shirt to leather jacket. I recall how he had scrawled a variety of slogans and snippets from poems across his dorm-room walls. He told me at the time that he was interested in the act of politically infiltrating certain kinds of spaces. For instance, he had attended an “ex-gay” camp just to gauge the atmosphere and see what actually happens there, and to what sort of people. His student films were totally offbeat and distinctively envisioned, and I knew that he’d probably do something important and fearless someday. With The Act of Killing, he most definitely has.
Josh’s work on the film began a decade ago, when he was commissioned to make a documentary series about globalization and Indonesian culture. He learned to speak the language that way, and he was also introduced over time to his film’s subjects, the men of a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth who had carried out the 1965 - 1966 massacres and still boast about the killings with pride to this day. Many are now employed and protected as officials of the Indonesian government, often terrorizing victims’ families into not discussing or publically acknowledging the crimes.
Oppenheimer noticed that whenever he met and interviewed these men, their telling him about the murders was never enough; they wanted to show him how and where they’d committed their crimes. Sadly, some in Indonesian culture still regard them as heroes. At one point in the documentary, we see a handful of these men paraded onto the set of a nationally televised talk show, where their killings of long ago are reverently applauded by the host and the audience.
It’s partly for this reason that Oppenheimer has said the film is not about Indonesia’s past, but rather about Indonesia’s present. His focus in the film is a man named Anwar Congo, who executed by hand over 1,000 of the killings in Medan, North Sumatra. Though his age (and grandchildren) have somewhat softened and tamed him, Anwar makes for a chilling figure. He’s happy to demonstrate for the camera, on multiple occasions, how he strangled his victims with wire, in order to minimize the loss of blood while they were being killed. He stages these demonstrations in the very same locations where he originally committed the killings.
For anyone with a shred of conscience, which Oppenheimer was clearly aware that Anwar Congo still possesses, such re-enactments will eventually begin to exact their own psychological price. But the true genius of the film is how much further it carries the scope of the re-enactments themselves. (And it’s worth noting that the filmed re-enactments were funded by grants from academic and human-rights organizations.) The templates for the re-enactments are often classic Hollywood film genres: Westerns, gangster flicks, film noir. The most elaborate re-enactment features the original members of Pancasila Youth pillaging and burning down an entire village.
I haven’t stopped thinking about how trenchantly effective this device is since I watched the documentary a week ago now. The Act of Killing is a film in which the medium of film itself forces the documentary’s subjects into a gradual confrontation with their own sense of morality, especially in the case of Anwar Congo. In the film’s pivotal gangster-based sequence, Anwar plays the victim who’s being beaten by his scenery-chewing sidekick Herman Koto, and yes, Anwar is eventually blindfolded and subjected to his own death-by-strangulation-with-wire technique. The perpetrator has willingly backed himself into his own gruesome corner, one that he can barely muster the energy to stagger away from thereafter. Early in the documentary, Anwar excitedly claims, “No other film has ever used our method,” and he’s absolutely right about that.
Another of the Pancasila Youth members who’s interviewed in the film is worth mentioning, too: Adi Zulkadry, perhaps the most articulate, outspoken, and frightening of the documentary’s interviewees. Defiantly unapologetic about his past crimes, he gets into a heated argument on camera with Oppenheimer as they’re driving together in a car. Zulkadry throws out the old line that history is written by “the winners” and says that he’d be glad to be put on trial at the international court in the Hague because then “I’ll be famous.” To prove his hegemonic point, he challenges Oppenheimer, staring directly into the camera, and rhetorically asks him why the mass genocide of Native American Indians in the United States was never punished either.
From this point onward, the film becomes increasingly nightmarish and surreal, and it also cuts much closer to the bone. Some dreamlike song-and-dance numbers are interspliced with the brutal re-enactments in artfully hyperrealistic counterpoint. But Oppenheimer knows that his job for nearly the entire time is to be an alert observer. We never see him on screen, though we do hear his voice a few times when he’s directing, responding to, or sometimes interrogating his subjects.
At the most profound moment in the film, after Anwar requests to watch a video of the gangster re-enactment on his television (with his two young grandsons sitting on his lap), he remarks that he does feel what his victims felt, almost as a way of trying to convince himself of his own sense of empathy. Josh calmly (yet incredulously) replies that, no, Anwar does not feel what his victims felt because he knows that he’s only acting for a film, whereas his victims knew that they were being killed. The film’s climax, in which Anwar physically acknowledges but cannot expurgate his guilt, is excruciating and unflinching.
The Act of Killing will no doubt alter the game rules for the documentary form, opening it up to an intense, imaginative realm that’s never quite been approached. It’s among the most indelible explorations of moral accountability I’ve seen.