A film that so fearlessly confronts an issue like the celebrated “communist” Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 and its perpetrators, acts as a painful realization to those viewers who are unaware that events as such have even taken place.
Seeing something so critically acclaimed as director Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” pop up on Netflix, I couldn’t help but proclaim, “oh, wonderful! I can watch an awesome movie that I’ve been dying to see!” The irony of my statements exists on multiple levels, yet while the documentary acts as a vessel for its audience to be moved at the life experience of a mass murderer, I personally, was left feeling woefully dismayed at my own ignorance that the events in Indonesia had even taken place. I would argue strongly that regardless of this being Oppenheimer’s intent, there is something emotionally tremendous about “The Act of Killing”.
I hate writing plot synopses, so I will say only that we follow a man named Anwar Congo, who is now many years removed from his days of slaughter, yet that period of his life no doubt returns to him daily via flashbacks. In fact, he says it does, in the form of nightmares. One particular incident involved him gashing open the throat of a presumably innocent man who was called a communist. Congo, somehow without emotion, laments over the fact that he didn’t bother to close the man’s eyes while he bled out.
The premise of the film states that the murderers reenact scenes from their past hollywood-style, and while that sounds like something difficult to stomach on-screen, it is the moments where these men recall the stories of the things they did where we are pushed the farthest. Perhaps not so much the ways in which they killed the countless innocents, but instead their tone when telling the stories. Before reenacting a village burning, a paramilitary man motions, and recalls how he used to rape every woman he saw in a village, especially the young girls who were at least 14 years of age. The men around him chuckle. He answers back, “you can’t get away with stuff like that anymore with the law,” and he smiles again as if thinking, “those were the good days.”
I believe that by the tone of this documentary that Oppenheimer is an objective director. I believe he worked closely with his editors to achieve this. Honestly, how can you not be on the side of the many young lives that were blotted out by these killers? Oppenheimer allows us to see the situation for what it is. He brings us close to these “free men” gangsters who were, interestingly enough, inspired by Marlon Brando, and other mafioso-types from American crime cinema. We recognize they are human beings, but it is in the moments where some of these men spend time with their families that we are able to see how detached they are. It is when they act in their own film as victims that they themselves realize how detached they are.
I can’t say for sure whether or not Congo can make amends with the many families he has destroyed, knowing about his efficiency and cavalierness in killing. However, his visible change throughout “The Act of Killing” is chilling because it seems so genuine. He takes us to the places where he has ended many lives. He shows us the methods he helped to develop in order to spill less blood so the clean up wasn’t as aggressive. The question of how sincere he truly is seems a mystery. In the open with his cohorts, and on TV, he appears to be a proud, wise, happy man, yet in the quiet, we all know just how alone he feels.
In the single most powerful moment in the film, Anwar Congo returns once more to his killing ground, a rooftop above a jewelry store. Much like the beginning of the film, he recaps the exact spot he killed men, and how he did it. Last time he told us, it was daylight and he was with a friend. Now he’s alone, and the sun has set. Symbolically, Congo has become very vulnerable with us, and the person he is when he’s alone at night is who we see. He becomes unable to finish his sentences as his stomachs turns sideways and he dry heaves into a latrine. Perhaps this haunting sound he makes from his throat is close to the guttural cries from the men he murdered at the same spot. We can’t help but wonder if he truly feels the pain that his victims felt, but we will likely never know.
He leaves the building slowly, disappearing around the corner towards the street. We hear a few motorcycles go by, which also happened earlier in the film at the same spot. Anwar’s story has come full circle for us, and somewhere deep down, we hope only the same for the demented, tormented soul of Anwar Congo. But then, without grace, how do you make good on a lifetime of brutality?