Mark Reviews Movies

The Act of Killing

THE ACT OF KILLING

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 7/19/13 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 22, 2013

As far back as he can remember, Anwar Congo always wanted to be a gangster. In The Act of Killing, he recalls going to a local movie theater in Medan, Indonesia, to see American movies on the subject, and as a result, he and his friends started a group they called the "movie theater gangsters."  They would sell tickets to sold-out screenings to people on the street. After a military coup in 1965, Congo got his wish.

The far-right, nationalistic, and militaristic government decided that they would create enemies. They were communists, union workers, and Chinese nationals. The plan was to exterminate these enemies, removing any and all opposition to its rule. The government used paramilitary groups, which still essentially control the country to this day, and gangsters like Congo. By the end of the purge, which lasted only five months, between 500,000 and 2 million people had been killed. It's impossible to ascertain concrete numbers because of how disorganized the entire brutal enterprise was.

Those who ordered the killings are still in power and still spreading fear about a possible threat just waiting for the opportunity to raise its head. Those who perpetrated the mass murders are free men and treated as heroes.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to confront Congo and some of his accomplices under the guise of giving them the chance to tell their story in the form of a movie. The only question he poses to them: Why did they kill?

Claude Lanzmann, the documentarian/journalist who has spent decades examining and investigating the Shoah, has said that the question, in regards to that subject, is obscene. He is correct. In a way, the mere act of attempting to understand inherently implies that there is a reason, and in reason, there is a justification, whether one believes the rationale behind it or not.

This is the overwhelming hurdle that Oppenheimer faces, and his technique, which is admittedly questionable but frighteningly effective, sidesteps that barrier. He is not searching for a reason. In feigning that he has a desire or curiosity to understand them, he has tricked his subjects into revealing their true forms. The most terrifying thing about these men is the impression that they would be willing to share their stories of torture and death without the pretense of making a movie about them.

It would be too easy to label Congo and his acquaintances "evil," but then we see him and fellow gangster Herman Koto auditioning local women and children for a planned scene that will recreate the burning down of a village. As Koto has the women and children scream for mercy, Oppenheimer cuts to Congo—a chilling grin on his face at the sound of their wailing. It would be too easy, but in this and countless other moments like it in the film, no other word comes to mind.

The film is divided between interviews, the making of their "movie," and the scenes they have shot. Every piece has one goal: to expose them. They share quite readily. Congo takes us to place where he did most of his killing—the patio of the building across the street from the movie theater. He says how he would butcher his victims, but it became too messy. Taking a note from movies about the Mafia he had seen, he explains how he began using wire to avoid a bloody mess. On a talk show where Congo and his fellow "filmmakers" appear as guests, the host becomes rhapsodic about their methods—a more humane way to kill communists, she says, not trying to hide her enthusiasm.

Also on that show are members of the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group that organized death squads during the 1965-66 killings. Its leader is there to answer the question of why the children of those who were killed have not tried to seek revenge. His answer is to the point: If they did try, they would be eradicated.

We meet one of the children of the victims on the set of an interrogation scene. The man—in a cruel bit of casting, playing a communist under interrogation who is about to strangled—suggests a story from his own past. When he was a child, his stepfather was taken away as a suspected communist, only to be found dead—unceremoniously dumped on the road—days later. He tells the story with a smile, fearing that his point will be taken for what it really is and constantly insisting that he isn't criticizing them.

The "movie" scenes do not give us any understanding of these murderers' reasons, but they do illuminate the way they see themselves. The interrogation scenes play in shadow as the killers, wearing suits and hats (Congo has dyed his hair for no reason except vanity), imagine themselves as their heroes from American gangster movies (Their attempts to rationalize their actions come in the form of strange musical numbers).

Adi Zulkadry, who flies to Indonesia with his wife and child (Of all the injustices here, that these men have led normal lives after their horrific crimes is among the worst), worries that the scenes will show that they—not, as the government propaganda has been saying for decades, the communists—were the cruel ones. He's not scared of repercussions. In one scene he even welcomes the hypothetical scenario of being brought before The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity because it would make him famous (Let us hope he gets the first half of that wish). He's afraid it will oppose the government's version of history, which is the same concern of a government official who watches the Pancasila Youth recreate the burning of a village. He has no problem with the act itself; he simply doesn't want them to look angry as they do it.

This is a horrifying, unflinching film with Congo serving as the darkest heart of a past that continues to go unpunished and seems ready to repeat itself at any moment. By a certain point, it becomes clear that Congo is aware of his chance to present an idealized—in his mind—version of himself, and he spends much of The Act of Killing attempting to portray himself as the victim—haunted by ghosts, playing a murder victim in the "movie," and sobbing without tears. He's a fake, and Oppenheimer, in a spontaneous act of composed outrage, challenges him on his phoniness. It may break the rules, but it's the only human thing to do.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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