“The Act of Killing” (2013) – Review

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Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

With: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, and “Animal”

From the literal mouth of a derelict roadside attraction in the shape of a fish, dancing ladies emerge in single file arms raised high followed my a fat man in drag, and then Anwar Congo. Cut to the same group in the jungle with a waterfall in the background as a “director” yells instructions. After “cut” is yelled the women drop their arms and wrap themselves for warmth.

Next we are in an urban park. As the camera pulls back the basic facts and history are laid-out. In 1965 there was a military coup in Indonesia and the civilian government was ousted. In order to maintain control and root out the ethnic Chinese (i.e. communists) the government gave free rein to local gangster to interrogate and kill “suspects”. In this ethnic cleansing approximately one million people were killed. One of these gangsters was Anwar Congo.

The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, convinced not only Anwar but also his other cohorts to film their experiences and create a movie. Throughout The Act of Killing we witness the making-of this fictitious movie while Anwar and company tell their tales.

The most repugnant of the group is “animal”–labeled as such for my inability to correctly identify him from the IMDb listing. He is a cross between Paulie ‘Walnuts’ of The Sopranosand Tommy of Goodfellas, but lacking any humor or even one redeeming quality. We witness him shakedown Chinese shop keepers in the market without a care he is being filmed. Later in the documentary when they dramatize a raid carried out on a village that left many dead and the town burned to the ground, “animal” remembers fondly how they raped the women and particularly enjoyed the fourteen year-olds. After the scene has been shot and a female actor is visibly traumatized and child actors cannot stop crying, “animal” looks on from a lounge chair with a nonchalant attitude. His inhumanity made worse to me by the fact of how it affected me. At that particular moment I imagined him strung-up like a cow at a slaughter-house with a technician slicing his gut and being disgorged. This mental image should have disturbed me, but in actuality I drew slight pleasure from the thought it was happening to him. I realized I lowered myself to his level.

The most intelligent of the group and a contemporary of Anwar’s is Adi Zulkadry. Adi of all those featured appears to be the one who has distanced himself most from the past. At one point Anwar asks why he never returns his calls. Anwar also asks if he is plagued by nightmares like he is from his past. Amazingly Adi says no. He is also the only one that sees the mistake of creating the movie they are making. He admits that they have all perpetuated the lie–now forty years old–that the Chinese and communists were cruel, but they in fact were the cruel ones and much more ruthless. He warns this movie will reveal the truth. When confronted by Oppenheimer that his actions are punishable as war crimes as defined by the Geneva Convention, he retorts “‘war crimes’ are defined by winners. I am a winner.” He also goes onto say, “the Geneva Convention exists today, but perhaps tomorrow it is the Jakarta Convention.” And unfortunately his words are true. During this back and forth with Oppenheimer I was reminded of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War–his military commander admitting to him after the fire bombing of Japan during WWII that if the United States lost the war they would be hanged as “war criminals”.

Herman Koto is a combination of ‘Big Pussy’ and Bobby ‘Bacala’ from The Sopranos, having the cruelty and menace of one and the lack of drive of the other. It is he who is the fat man in drag at the beginning of the documentary. At one point he is convinced to run for Parliament. Clean shaved, cut hair, and dressed properly he makes a proper looking candidate. But when pressed to reveal why he chose to run he lays out in detail how he plans to extort large kickbacks from construction companies and businesses once in office by abusing his position.

Lastly is Anwar Congo, the ‘Uncle Jr.’ of the group. Anwar is obviously past his prime, but is respected by the group for his previous exploits. While being interviewed on a talk show to explain the movie he is making and recounting his past atrocities, the production staff in the control both wonder how many people he has killed? around 1,000 someone answers.

Of this motley group Anwar is the most affected by his past. We witness his sleepless nights as he stairs at the ceiling. In a bizarre way he uses the making of the film as an obscene therapy. He films reenactments of his nightmares; he casts himself as the murdered victims; he films his own beheading; and in the end is overcome with fear and exhaustion after another scene where is interrogated and garroted. When speaking to Oppenheimer about that particular experience he reveals he now knows what his victims felt and experienced their fear. Oppenheimer corrects him by saying he doesn’t. He reminds Anwar was aware everything was an act, but his victims knew they were going to die. By the end of the documentary Anwar is no longer spry but a deservedly frail old man.

The weakness in The Act of Killing is in the pacing. These men are alien to us and we have nothing in common with them. Since it is so difficult for the audience to connect with the subject, the first thirty minutes of the documentary drags. The strength in The Act of Killing lies in witnessing these true “hearts of darkness”; in being outraged at a government that allows these men to exist, glorify them, and act with impunity.

Oppenheimer also allowed a cruel thing to occur. By giving these men a voice in the fallacy of the movie they thought they were making, he allowed unfortunate regular citizens to have to be a part of their sham–people who may have been related to or known of people who were killed during this time.

Grade = B+

P.S. The final credits rolled with a large number of “Anonymous” listed for the cast & crew.

P.P.S. Ruth below has informed me Joshua Oppenheimer’s original intent was to interview the survivors of the atrocities. But they feared being interviewed and actually suggested to him to interview the perpetrators.

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Click on image to view trailer

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About VictorsMovieReviews

I love movies. I watch them, read them, and am currently writting one. View all posts by VictorsMovieReviews

4 responses to ““The Act of Killing” (2013) – Review

  • ruth

    I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Joshua Oppenheimer right after I saw this film, and as an Indonesian this doc really hit home for me. Glad you’ve seen this one, and I agree the pacing drags in parts but because I understood the language spoken in the film, it didn’t bother me much. I don’t think Joshua wanted to give these ruthless killers a voice, if anything he wanted to show to the world the barbarity of their ‘act of killing’ and expose the inhumanity of it all, as they’re seen as heroes in their home turf. In my interview w/ him, he initially wanted to film the survivors of the killings but as they were afraid to talk, they actually suggested that he approach the perpetrators instead, which ended up revealing way more incriminating things than what the survivors would’ve been able to tell him.

    In any case, this is one of those films that’d haunt me for weeks.

    P.S. It’s Anwar Congo, not ‘Amwar’ šŸ™‚

    • VictorsMovieReviews

      Thanks for the correction on Anwar; I’ve changed it in the review. And thank you for the information about how it was the survivors idea to interview the perpetrators.

      And your right, the documentary stays with you.

  • Nostra

    Excellent review and it had a lot of impact on me as well. Very powerful documentary and surprised they participated in it.

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