When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, artists, and intellectuals in less than a year. Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands. The killers have been in power ever since.
In The Act of Killing, Anwar and his friends agree to tell us the story of the killings. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to make the kind of scenes they loved from their days scalping tickets: gangster films, westerns, musicals. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.
The hallucinatory result is a cinematic fever dream, a nightmarish journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.
“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. The Act of Killing is unprecedented in the history of cinema,” Werner Herzog said at the film’s world premiere in Toronto last year. The film is produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen for the Danish production company Final Cut for Real.
“As for complicity … I can be accused of giving the killers a platform, but the truth is the whole country is their platform – that’s what the film is about. And maybe my country is not so different. At the beginning I go in, and I’m an American filmmaker making an American movie as far as they are concerned. They love American movies. America supported what they did. And America has championed the regime of corruption and repression that they built. So they just assumed that I was on their side, I really didn’t have to lie. In fact they used words like ‘extermination’ and ‘killing’ very openly – as glorious things – so I could speak very plainly to them. All I had to do was not show how upset I was and to treat them like human beings, not monsters.”
History is written by the victors, we know, but for many documentary filmmakers the prime responsibility is to share the stories of the vanquished: the suffering, injustice, death and despair written out of the official version.
It’s a noble impulse, and it inspired Joshua Oppenheimer to make a film about the families of Indonesian communists murdered during the political upheaval that led to General Suharto’s military dictatorship in 1965.
Oppenheimer will finish that film in due course. But in The Act of Killing he has done something subtly different; something more original and more dangerous. Because while the victims certainly register powerfully in this shattering, already widely-acclaimed film (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September), Oppenheimer has elected instead to make a movie with the winners, North Sumatra’s ruling elite. These self-styled heroes have enjoyed the spoils of victory for nearly half a century, all on the back of the mass extermination they committed in their youth.
Unlike the genocidal ex-Khmer Rouge coaxed into confession in Rithy Panh’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine or Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People, Anwar Congo and his cronies prove enthusiastic collaborators in Oppenheimer’s project, motivated not so much by guilt or the need for forgiveness, but by pride and vanity, the desire to reenact their “heroic” deeds for the cameras.
When these gangsters first return to the scene of their crimes, a rooftop courtyard where hundreds, maybe thousands, died, they’re immune to the suffering they caused. Anwar – a mild-mannered, silver-haired, dapper gentleman who looks a little like Nelson Mandela – recalls that at first he bludgeoned his victims, but it was too bloody for comfort. Instead he hit on a more efficient, cleaner method, and happily demonstrates how he used a wire noose to strangle them. Then he breaks into a little dance.
For some films, such a scene might be an ending point. In The Act of Killing, it’s only the beginning. Rather than demonize this apparently amoral monster and his cohorts, the film seeks to understand how these men see themselves, an investigation in which cinema is itself an integral part of the story.
Movie theatre gangsters
An expatriate American who lived in London for 14 years and more recently has made his home in Denmark, Joshua Oppenheimer first visited Indonesia in 2002, researching workers’ rights for a project called The Globalization Tapes (2003). Together with his co-director Christine Cynn, he found an impoverished and exploited work force unable to agitate for better conditions because they were still living side by side with the men who had killed their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents for belonging to the plantation workers’ union in the mass killings of 1965-1966.
“They were afraid to talk to us about it,” he recalls. “They said we should talk to the killers, which is what we did. We went hanging around their homes pretending to shoot village life, hoping we would be invited in – and very quickly we were. All we had to do was ask, and the first guy we talked to immediately launched into how he beat Communists ‘til they were unconscious, and then drowned them in irrigation ditches.”
This man seemed impervious to shame. Quite the opposite: he told this story in front of his ten-year-old granddaughter, whose bored reaction suggested she had heard it many times before. “The basis of a gangster’s power is to be feared,” Oppenheimer explains. “If you have killed all these people, how better to be feared than to boast about it?”
In other parts of Indonesia the military had forged alliances with religious groups to purge the leftists – groups who have been more scrupulous in sweeping the genocide under the carpet. But in North Sumatra, the gangsters’ links with the military run deep, they’re immune from prosecution and have always been celebrated as the heroes who saved the country from Communism. As one killer rationalizes, “War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition …”
Working his way up the chain of command, Oppenheimer interviewed about 40 members of the death squads before he met the heads of the most feared outfit in Medan (Indonesia’s third largest city), the notorious “Frog Squad”, led by Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.
Anwar and his buddies were “movie theatre gangsters”. That is, they used to haunt the cinemas when the movies were the primary source of entertainment in Indonesia, and made money scalping tickets. They were also avid movie fans (Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah were particular favourites). Anwar talks about watching Elvis Presley movies at the cinema where he used to scalp tickets, then strolling across the street to the newspaper office where they slaughtered suspected Communists, killing “in a happy way,” as he puts it. He even attributes his preferred killing technique to cinema, a little something he picked up from gangster movies.
Only natural, then, that he should be concerned with how he comes across on screen. But it’s not any moral qualm that gives him pause. Reviewing the unedited footage from the rooftop, Anwar’s main worry is that it lacks authenticity: “I would never have worn white pants,” he says. “And my hair was darker then …”
He wants to redo the scene the way he would have looked in 1965 – the way it looks in the movie in his head. And that’s a notion that takes The Act of Killing away from documentary conventions, and into richer, darker and infinitely stranger territory; what Oppenheimer calls “a documentary of the imagination”.
The film takes on a life of its own
With Anwar and several sidekicks playing themselves, Oppenheimer sets about staging scenes that they themselves devise: recreating their memories of interrogations, torture, and execution, not as straight re-enactments, but in the style of the movies these men enjoy. Some scenes play like episodes from low budget 1950s Hollywood crime thrillers; others evoke war movies, horror films, musicals, even cowboy films.
It’s probably safe to say you haven’t seen a documentary that looks anything like this one before – and most especially a documentary about such unspeakable atrocities. Surreal, at times sublime, and also grotesquely camp, The Act of Killing dares you not to laugh – one corpulent heavy exhibits a surprising inclination to dress up in drag. But the laughter is guaranteed to catch in your throat the next minute, when we’re confronted again with the extent of the iniquity that underlies this corner of Paradise.
“I don’t come from a documentary background per se. One thing that struck me was how arbitrary it is to pretend that there is no camera there, and no film crew, when you are filming an observational documentary,” Oppenheimer says. “I was more interested in creating a non-fiction film about storytelling and giving the characters the chance to create themselves for the camera.”
“All the ‘fiction’ scenes, the scene with the giant fish and the dancing girls, the waterfall vision of the afterlife … These things that express the emotional, poetic truth of the film – the terror and the trauma – they had to be authentic. Our goal was to create images with as much poetic force as possible. Even if they are also sometimes garish and camp, we tried to make them beautiful. I think the fish is beautiful and ridiculous and sad, and that came directly from [Anwar’s sidekick] Herman. It was most important to me that everything came from them. And it was always Anwar’s wish to make something beautiful.”
Oppenheimer observes his collaborators closely on stage and off, often flowing between the artifice of their constructed scenes and the reality of their filmmaking endeavors in single, unbroken takes so that this notional film somehow contains its own “making of” documentary, just as the present also contains the past. At first the actors imagine themselves as the heroes in these episodes. They see themselves as movie stars. But over the course of the shooting, they slowly begin to grapple with the disturbing realization that not everyone will see things in the same light.
“The fiction scenes take over the film as it goes on, but at the same time they also take Anwar deeper into his experience, until, as you see, it becomes a kind of descent into hell.”
For perhaps the first time, Anwar’s conscience stirs. In one scene, Oppenheimer suggests that Anwar play the communist suspect interrogated and tortured by the Frog Squad. The experience visibly unsettles him. Elsewhere, his more politically astute comrade and friend, Adi, steps back from a rehearsal and comprehends that they are incriminating themselves. Later, a government minister oversees the re-enactment of the rape and massacre of an entire village. He calls “Cut” as the horror of the scene can no longer be denied, then changes his mind again and lets the sequence play out – better to appear ruthless than weak.
By this time, the film has taken on a life of its own “like a tsunami that sweeps us all up in it and carries us into the realm of chaos,” Oppenheimer suggests, a metaphor that also speaks to the experience of watching it. Compelled by emotions they probably could not articulate, the gangsters keep on shooting, even to the point of putting Anwar’s nightmares on screen. The lines between real life and the movie become blurred in their heads – but they’re hardly the first filmmakers to decide that the movie is paramount.
It’s not going to be okay
The same could be said of Oppenheimer of course, who dedicated the best part of eight years to this intense collaboration with self-proclaimed mass murderers. Inevitably, in some quarters he has been accused of both complicity and betrayal, of giving the killers a platform and of treating his subjects in bad faith.
“Their goal at the beginning was to glorify mass murder. That could never have been my goal, therefore that side of them may have been betrayed,” Oppenheimer accepts.
“Anwar is a special case because he starts to realize it unconsciously, in his body. As the film goes on, he starts to feel empathy. And it is scary and uncomfortable and that’s why he wants to shut it down in the penultimate scene, and claims that he gets it now and he feels what the victims felt … Which he absolutely does not.”
“The film develops a kind of empathy for Anwar, and the tightrope we had in editing was moving between repulsion and empathy for him – or if not empathy at least identification. But I don’t feel I betrayed him, and Anwar has seen the film and we have talked and I cannot say he liked the film, but he is not angry with me, because he knew [what the film would contain]. There is a scene at the end of the film where he goes back on the roof. He starts to retch and he can’t stop. As someone who had been through this experience with him for eight years I wanted to go up and put my arm around him and say it’s going to be okay. But it’s not going to be okay and he knows it’s not and I know it’s not, and all I could do was bear witness to his breakdown.”
“As for complicity … I can be accused of giving the killers a platform, but the truth is the whole country is their platform – that’s what the film is about,” he says. “And maybe my country is not so different. At the beginning I go in, and I’m an American filmmaker making an American movie as far as they are concerned. They love American movies. America supported what they did. And America has championed the regime of corruption and repression that they built. So they just assumed that I was on their side, I really didn’t have to lie. In fact they used words like ‘extermination’ and ‘killing’ very openly – as glorious things – so I could speak very plainly to them. All I had to do was not show how upset I was and to treat them like human beings, not monsters. And they’re not monsters … We may like to call them monsters or psychopaths, but in fact they’re just greedy, small-minded men, and it’s so human what they do.”
“That’s the hope of the film: that they are human and Anwar is affected as a human by what he has done. It’s also the terrible message of the film, because it means maybe many of us could do what he did.”
The Act of Killing is produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen for Final Cut for Real.