Anyone interested in film has probably been spending some time recently looking at the end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. The same films crop up, of course – aggregation sites like Metacritic show that big-budget films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are topping the polls. Number six on that list, though – and in first place in ‘serious’ publications like Sight and Sound and The Guardian- is something of an anomaly; a documentary, and an experimental one at that, about the persecution and killing of supposed Communists in Indonesia when the army suppressed an attempted coup in 1965. It’s called The Act of Killing and it was made by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. (That anonymity is the first sign that we are not in conventional film-making territory here; the Indonesian crew stayed anonymous for fear of violent reprisal.) It is a wonderful, strange film – one of those which stays with the viewer long after watching -and though many reviewers say it is ‘difficult’ to watch, it really isn’t. The shocking thing, in fact, is how easily we are drawn into a world of utter amorality and chaos.
When a story is told, the teller has decisions to make. ‘Where to stand?’ is the first one; that is, whose story are we telling? What angle are we approaching from? This film deals with a series of atrocities and massacres which claimed the lives of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. The obvious approach is to let the victims, or their loved ones, speak, to give them the voice they were so brutally denied. Much more difficult, and controversial, is to stand on the other side and to explore the lives and minds of the men who did the killing. But this is what Oppenheimer does in his film. It is basically the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster who ‘rose’ to become the leader of one of the more notorious death squads. The film claims that Congo was personally responsible for killing around 1000 people. This choice to tell the story of the killers has earned Oppenheimer some furious condemnation; Peter Rainer, for example, refused to give the film a grading, writing that ‘Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime.’ As we’ve seen, other reviewers considered this the finest film of the year; it obviously evokes powerful emotions and responses, which is surely appropriate for a film about a conflict which still shapes Indonesia today.
Another question which storytellers need to answer is ‘How to speak?’ How do we tell the story, or, in documentary, how do we get the subjects to tell their own story? Conventional documentarians stick a camera in front of the subject and let them speak or follow them around and let them show themselves. Oppenheimer does this also; we follow Congo and various associates, mostly other gangsters, as they go about their business – extorting money from their neighbours, largely – and to that degree it’s a conventional observational documentary. But clearly Oppenheimer wanted to go beyond the surface of how these men continue to justify what they did and ask more profound questions – how, for example, does a man live with himself after committing mass murder on an unimaginable scale? To this end, he uses more creative methods, more associated with performative documentary; he invites the killers, all huge fans of film, primarily American film, to re-create events and emotions from their past by making a film about them. This is a strange, indirect way of getting at ‘the truth’, and predictably it only succeeds in getting at one version of the truth; but it certainly produces a powerful, affecting film, one that both awakens awareness of the events under discussion and provokes questions about the nature of murder and evil.
Watching these men produce their film with almost childlike enthusiasm produces absolutely bizarre imagery, mostly involving the thuggish Herman Koto, an overweight gangster who plays all the female roles and provides comic relief.
At the start, we watch Koto encourage local children to act out the burning of their homes and the slaughter of their parents, laughing and joking as they perform for him. He is a big, humorous bear of a man, warm and affable, and it is easy to forget tat these children are reenacting things which happened, probably to their grandparents, and that Herman and his friends really were those who were burning homes and slaughtering the inhabitants.
Anwar Congo himself first appears as a dapper, frail gentleman with an amusing vanity (he favours bright, old-fashioned suits and we often see him fussing with his false teeth.) He loves the camera, and is more than willing to discuss his past; this quickly becomesa discussion of chosen methods of murder as he explains how he hit upon his favoured method -strangulation with wire – as a way of avoiding the need to clear up afterwards. (‘We used to beat them to death,’ he says, ‘but there was too much blood.’) Several times, we see him re-enacting the strangulation of victims as he and his friends, usually dressed as noirish gangsters, for that is how they choose to see themselves, make the film about their actions. The film gains some depth when Congo confesses that he has nightmares about what he has done, and this then becomes the narrative focus of the film; we watch as he approaches an (rather underwhelming) understanding of his actions. At the end of the film, he himself is filmed being ‘strangled’; he weeps as he watches it, then retches when he returns to the scene of many of his murders. This is narrative in the classic Western style; one man forced to change, to perhaps start to move towards some sort of understanding or redemption. (And any suggestion of understanding or redemption, of course, might be completely fabricated by the filmmaker or by Congo himself; it is easy to see why so many people were offended by this film.)
Oppenheimer guides Congo towards this epiphinaic understanding by making, or allowing, him to confront his past. One of the most powerful scenes is when the stepson of a real-life victim nervously tells the story of how his father was abducted and killed and how he, as a child, had to bury the body. He then acts in the film, playing his father as the gangsters strangle and kill him. At this point, and later during the reenactment of a village massacre, we start to see more thoughtful reaction shots as Congo reflects on what he is doing and has done.
The massacre scene is perhaps the most powerful part of the film. It is a masterpiece of juxtapositon, as is the whole film; we see men gently encouraging women and children to act more realistically, then cut to one of those men bragging about how he would ‘rape the shit out of’ fourteen-year old girls. An Indonesian MP turns up to help with direction, showing us that the people who massacred all these supposed ‘Communists’ (in reality, simply people who attracted the wrong sort of attention) are, in large part, the people running Indonesia today. The re-enactment itself is blurry, filmed with hand-held cameras, the sound muted, and it is devastatingly effective, both for the viewer and those who act in it, many of whom are in tears at the end.
There is too much to say about this film; Dana Stevens summarises it well by calling it ‘a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.’ I hope my students will watch it, not only for the lessons it teaches about life (evil is boring, everyday, everywhere) but also for the example it sets for film-makers; how fearless, creative, unconventional thinking and approaches can lead us to ask uncomfortable questions and communicate powerful truths.