Film review of 'The Act of Killing'

Killers Turned Inside Out

The film The Act Of Killing is the big buzz in the world of cinema. The documentary about death squad killers in Indonesia in 1965 has to be one of the oddest films in recent memory. Imagine a filmmaker, in this case 38-year-old Joshua Oppenheimer, handing over control of his film to a handful of psychopathic killers so they can re-enact how they murdered their countrymen and -women.

The result is a riotous confusion of genres that both exacerbates and delights the senses and the mind. At the showing I saw in Philadelphia, several comments afterwards were critical and dismissive of the film — as in, how dare this guy give such a powerful venue of expression to such loathsome human beings.

It was a very good point.

Anwar Congo, center in hat, and his killer pals driving in Jakarta.  At right, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.Anwar Congo, center in hat, and his killer pals driving in Jakarta. At right, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.

It’s like someone handed over the reins of a film production crew to Boston mob butcher Whitey Bulger and said, “How did you do it, Whitey? As we just heard in testimony in your trial, how did you strangle that young woman while her stepfather watched? Here, use this young woman volunteer and re-enact it for the cameras. Then, we’ll get the stepfather to re-enact how he dragged her dead body down to the cellar and extracted all her teeth with pliers. It’ll be great! And, Whitey … this is performance art, so have fun doing it. Smile a lot.”

That absurd scenario begins to get at the bizarre cinematic artifact Joshua Oppenheimer has wrought on film. The only difference is the Indonesian death squad killers who were strangling people and chopping off their heads did those deeds back in 1965 for political reasons, not Boston mob priorities. For me, that makes all the difference, turning a self-indulgent, macabre glorification of crime into a unique and politically potent work of genius.

While Whitey Bulger did his killing under the protection of at least one FBI agent, Anwar Congo, the central protagonist of The Act of Killing, and others like him operated in 1965 as fairly open functionaries of the Indonesian government intent on destroying a leftist movement. Depending on who is doing the telling, it led to the cold-blooded murders of between 500,000 and two million Indonesian citizens. As Congo makes clear in the film, those doing the killing facilely convinced themselves the people they were told to kill were “communists.” How they actually did the individual killings was left up to their imaginations and desires.

Killing and torture have always been with us — and today is no exception. The so-called “terrorists” of the world do it, as do the top-down, reactionary power centers trying desperately to hold onto power. The United States does it (more cleanly than anyone else, of course) with its evolving new policy of drones, special operations assassination teams and possibly other even more secret operations. The post-coup Egyptian military government just killed over 75 peaceful demonstrators with gunshots to the head and heart. As power continues to devolve and fragment into more diverse global power centers, killing may become a mix of classic large scale operations with newer, more precise forms of the art. In this age of information, the challenge will be how to mobilize propaganda support to justify, or overlook, killing as well as to recruit the actors needed to do the killing. The Act of Killing is unabashedly about such actors.

(Oppenheimer was initially interested in the victims of the 1965 extermination campaign, but when he came upon the individuals in this film he decided it was too much to pass up. He has said he plans to do a follow-up film on the victims.)

Anwar Congo tells of going with his fellow killers to a movie theater to watch American gangster movies to work themselves into the right mood for killing. He proudly sees himself as a “gangster,” which he translates to mean “free man” in the sense the capacity for ruthless violence assures one’s freedom to do as one wishes. When the movie was over, they’d walk across the street to the police station, where cops had picked up and collected people for them to kill. He says beating a person to death became too messy, so he came up with a better solution. One end of a long, stiff wire is attached to a solid object on the wall. The wire is then wrapped around the victim’s neck. A piece of wood is tied to the other end of the wire, and Congo gleefully shows us on a mock victim how he would yank until the writhing victim choked and expired. This was a much more efficient process. Less mess to clean up.

Congo shows off his wire strangling technique and, right, undergoes some disturbing mock torture himself.Congo shows off his wire strangling technique and, right, undergoes some disturbing mock torture himself.

What makes this macabre film so compelling is the knowledge that it’s not fiction. For an American, knowing the US government fully supported the policy gives it an extra frisson. It was a time when the US was becoming mired in a counter-insurgency war in Vietnam, so it was more than happy to encourage and aid a local counter-insurgency purge in Indonesia.

“The United States was directly involved to the extent that they provided the Indonesian Armed Forces with assistance that they introduced to help facilitate the mass killings,” says Brad Simpson, a Princeton historian and author of Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and US-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968. He said this at a 2009 conference on the killings in Singapore, held there because the topic is taboo in Indonesia.

John Braddock, reporting on that conference, calls the killings “one of the great crimes of the twentieth century.” He writes: “US diplomats and CIA officers, including the former US ambassador to Indonesia and Australia, Marshall Green, subsequently admitted working hand-in-glove with Suharto and his butchers in carrying through the massacres. They personally provided the names of thousands of PKI [communist] members from CIA files for the death lists.”

After the defeat of the Japanese in World War Two, as with the French in Vietnam, Dutch colonialists wanted to re-gain their colony in Indonesia. A revolution was fought from 1945 to 1949, at which point the Dutch gave the effort up. Sukarno (single name) ruled through the tumultuous 1965 period. He leaned to the left and, afraid of a western coup in 1965, announced he was making an alliance with China. Sparked by the assassination of six generals that year apparently by the PKI communists, military general Suharto (also a single name) took over the reins from a rather tired and decadent Sukarno. It was at this point, the mass killings were unleashed.

Richard E. Lewis, author of the novel Bones of the Dark Moon set in 1965 Indonesia where he was raised as a western kid, writes of avoiding one particular surfers beach that was a notorious killing site. He felt it was rich with ghosts from “… the other world, what the Balinese call the unseen realm. … The Balinese have a word for places like this — angker — … which is not really ‘spooky’ but mystical, spiritually charged, dangerous.” In Indonesia, The Act of Killing is banned, but it has a sort of samizdat life on-line, where it no doubt stirs up this unseen, dangerous realm of angker.

In a fascinating little book on counter-insurgency warfare called Violent Politics, William R. Polk makes it clear the only way to really destroy a popular insurgency is through a ruthless campaign of killing. The most effective historical example, he writes, was the Romans, whose scorched earth policy was to kill every living thing. In the case of the Indonesians, they did the next best thing, they employed mobs and a motley force of psychopathic killers to kill anyone who showed even an inkling of opposition to the government. If you didn’t like the government, you were a “communist” and you were slated to die. And it worked. Many of the killers back in 1965 are now entrenched in power.

“President Susil Bambang Yudhoyono, for instance, is a former general while his father-in-law, Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, was an Australian-trained officer who led the killings in Central Java,” writes Braddock. President Obama, who lived in Jakarta from 1967 to 1971 (age six to ten) met with President Yudhoyono in 2009 and 2010. Accordingly, the political climate there is such that men like Anwar Congo feel safe enough to participate in a film like The Act of Killing. To many, they’re heroes.

Much of the film is taken up with a large paramilitary force called the Pancasila Youth brigades, now said to number three million members and rooted in the 1965 mass killings. In the film, they are glowingly endorsed by the Indonesian vice president and other political dignitaries shown fawning over the force. They feature camouflage uniforms of browns, blacks and streaks of bright red that made the shirts look to me like they were soaked in fresh blood. In one long agonizing scene, members of the force re-enact burning down a peasant village. The re-enactment is undertaken with such authentic intensity it leaves one elderly woman virtually catatonic and children crying.

The leader of this paramilitary unit becomes wary; he looks to the camera and speaks to the director: “Joshua, we need to do it again. The men were too mean and vicious. The public will get the wrong impression.” He seems to suddenly “get” what’s going on and become scared for his career, maybe his life. I imagined an inscrutable and lovable Joshua Oppenheimer behind the camera nodding warmly, content in his mind he has gold in the can.

Surreal scenes with Congo in black and his fat cross-dressing killer friend in pink, at left, and blue at rightSurreal scenes with Congo in black and his fat cross-dressing killer friend in pink at left and blue at right

The film is a steaming stew of genres. Besides the gangster noir feel to some of the re-enactments, at times it’s like you’re on the set of a cheap George Romero Night of the Living Dead film shoot. Then it will shift into exotic imagery from the wild and brightly colored culture of Indonesia, with yellow jitneys in Jakarta, incredibly lush scenery, cross-dressing fat killers in pink outfits and dancing girls coming out of the mouth of a giant fish with windows.

You feel the trap door to the sub-conscious has been blown off its hinges and the horrors from Goya’s famous etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” have been let loose upon you all mixed up with elements of schlock culture. For me, it dredged up thoughts of surrealist filmmakers like Luis Bunuel, whose work Octavio Paz called “the marriage of the film image to the poetic image, creating a new reality … scandalous and subversive.” Then there’s the Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev and his strange 1971 cinematic soup WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Whereas back in 1971 Makavejev’s subversive edge was due to disturbing sexual content, in 2013, Oppenheimer’s edge comes from digging into the subconscious terrain of real violence, in this case state violence. Today, sex is passé, and the real cinematic taboo — the new terra incognita of cinema art — exists in the realm of violence. Not the realm of trash TV and movie violence that’s sensational but has no consequences, which is everywhere. But in the terrain of this film which paradoxically elevates the act of killing to the status of art, the same way Goya’s horrific and absurd

Post navigation