You can’t get this as real as this. The Act of Killing is one of the most unusual and amazing film you would have ever witnessed and a very non-conventional documentary made by the director Joshua Oppenheimer. It is a Danish-British-Norwegian co-production, produced by Signe Byrge Sorensen. It is a Docwest project of the University of Westminster.
This film won the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. The Act of Killing won best documentary at the 2014 BAFTA awards. In accepting the award, Oppenheimer asserted that the United States and the United Kingdom have “collective responsibility” for “participating in and ignoring” the crimes.
The Act of Killing is about the people who perpetrated the mass killings in Indonesia during 1965–66, an apparent anti-communist purge in which more than 500,000 people were killed. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the President of Indonesia, 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 leading the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra. They also extorted money from ethnic Chinese before killing them. Anwar is said to have personally killed 1,000 people by methods such as strangulation with wire.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chef-d’oeuvre is a far-reaching study about historical atrocities of Indonesia during mid-60s. The mass killing by Suharto’s coup installed military regime, the death squads are aghast and the way the institutionalized violence imperiled needs a reflection of those darkest impulses and the guilt remains unpardonable. The dead cry out here is the tribute, to those survivors of the ghastly event as this vent so far reassures the story courage and resilience.
This documentary recounts director Joshua Oppenheimer’s interaction with Anwar, and his friends. Their interpretation in front of the camera, the imageries, their memory and feelings about the killing are revealed astonishingly. The scenes are produced in the style of their favorite film genres, viz. the gangster, western, horror and musical. You can observe innumerable facets of Anwar and his friends, the dramatized version are well woven showing Anwar’s own nightmares, leading the film gradually into surreal. Oppenheimer has called the result “a documentary of the imagination”.
The amazement is that these men are willing to express their tales, frequently cosseting in graphic detail to describe, for example, the best means of murdering captives without spilling much blood, which they state that wire around the neck is one of the best ways and in some scenes, they even enjoy re-enacting their state-sanctioned murders on camera. Then you have on the other side with Anwar’s neighbor recalling to these killers his own tale of woe, when his stepfather answered a nighttime knock at the door in 1965 and was never seen again. Speaking with nervous laughter, the neighbor professes to Anwar that he of course means no criticism with his story—and then, to prove it, he agrees to play the role of a strangled victim in a scene set in a nightclub, pretending to be choked to death by the men responsible for the deaths of members of his family.
On the contrary, you can find few of Anwar’s friends’ state that the killings were wrong, while others worry about the consequences of the story on their public image. These killing machine monsters proudly proclaim that their work in the ’60s was influenced by the movies, although they obsolescently cite Scarface and The Godfather (which were made much after the Indonesian events) as direct influences on both their tactics and their sleek, ritzy fashion sense. Not just being this, damning through incisive observation, these killers’ relationship to the 3 million strong paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, which continues to operate outside Indonesian law even as it works in tandem with the government. In a stunning scene, the country’s vice president speaks to the group, jokingly condoning their blackmail-and-beatings. What emerges is a portrait of systemic fanaticism and brutality celebrated by both the political powers that be and TV personalities who merrily praise the men’s noble “extermination” work.
One the other side of camera, Anwar tries to play the victim of those ghastly years; he in-between says that it was hard to continue, further then says that he feels what his victims have felt. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, states that it was worse for the victims because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Anwar was only acting. Anwar then expresses doubts over whether or not he has transgressed, lapsed or sinned and in rarest of his tears saying he does not want the memories of what he did to come back to him. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place and gags repeatedly. The dancers from the film’s theatrical poster are seen before the credits begin to roll.
This film hands its murderers a mirror and a camera. The emotions however in short supply which neither shows any hopes or salvation and so Indonesia has nothing to plunge and still an unknown quantity to the rest of the World and in the end, the message is clear. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges called the film “an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers” and wrote that “it is not the demonized, easily digestible caricature of a mass murderer that most disturbs us. It is the human being.
There are lots of critical responses to this movie. An Indonesian academic, Soe Tjen Marching, analyzed the film in relation to Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil. The primary subjects in the film, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, have seen the film and neither feels deceived, according to Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer says that upon watching the film Anwar Congo “started to cry…Tearfully, he told me: ‘This is the film I expected. It’s an honest film, a true film.’ He said he was profoundly moved and will always remain loyal to it”.
A subsequent interview on Al Jazeera’s program revealed that Anwar had misgivings about the film and the negative reaction to it in Indonesia, which was causing problems for him. He confided these concerns directly to Oppenheimer. In some quarters Oppenheimer has been accused of treating his subjects in bad faith. As far as their goal at the beginning was to glorify mass murder, Oppenheimer responds that could never have been his goal, therefore that side of them may have been betrayed. In one of the interview- Oppenheimer said, “When I was entrusted by this community of survivors to film these justifications, to film these boastings, I was trying to expose and interrogate the nature of impunity. Boasting about killing was the right material to do that with because it is a symptom of impunity.