Reviewed by James R. Janowsky
There is something novel about Joshua Oppenheimer’s unsettling documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING. It is not its subjects—small-time gangsters turned mass murderers when the military overthrew the Indonesian government in 1965—which is unique in its own right, but it is that Mr. Oppenheimer has the mass murderers reenact their murders as producers, directors, and actors in their favorite genre films.
Out of the numerous mass murderers that Mr. Oppenheimer met while filming, he chose Anwar Congo to be the documentary’s main character. Mr. Congo doesn’t demonstrate the cliché characteristics of a Hollywood bad guy. Outwardly he seems to be a revered elder statesman, and even a loving grandfather towards his grandchildren. The Indonesian people consider him a hero and a founding father of the current right-wing paramilitary government. But there is no mistake, he is a killer, and he is a killer that won.
In a chilling scene early in the film, Mr. Congo, dressed as if he is going to a summer party, demonstrates the proper way to kill someone quickly and efficiently using a metal wire, a technique he had learned from watching movies. It is what Mr. Oppenheimer did next that is pure genius.
The next day he screened the footage of Mr. Congo’s wire-killing demonstration to him, as if holding up a mirror to reveal his true nature. As an audience member you hoped that Mr. Congo would acknowledge his evil ways, but he didn’t. He watched the scene critically, and responded that he would never wear white pants when he is murdering someone.
Anwar and his fellow murderers from Medan, Indonesia, were devoted fans of Hollywood movies, and utilized techniques they saw in films to murder communists, communist sympathizers, or people they assumed were communists. So when Anwar watched himself on screen, he didn’t see himself, he saw an actor like James Dean or Victor Mature… an actor that would never wear white pants while murdering someone.
Perhaps it was his (as well as his fellow murderers) way of detaching himself from the realization that he was a killer. It definitely makes it easier to murder someone when you are playing a character rather than being yourself. It can also safely be said that the “cause” to rid Indonesia of communists also helped to be a psychological detachment. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time someone justifies his or her actions because of a “cause”.
I don’t believe the violence that the Medan murderers saw in movies caused them to be violent. That’s too simple an explanation. But I do believe that the wire demonstration scene that Mr. Oppenheimer screened for Anwar did have an affect on him that becomes more apparent as Anwar and his fellow murderers begin to film reenactments of their notorious murders. We begin to see the toll that Anwar’s past has taken on his psyche, revealed slowly through performance and moviemaking. And by the end of the film we see a glimmer of Mr. Congo’s humanity, if ever so slightly, still in the shadows, but it is revealed.
I don’t know how you will react after you see this film. I know that when I left the screening room I knew I had seen a very good and unique documentary that left me feeling queasy, tinged with a mixture of anger towards Congo and his men. And I couldn’t imagine working with these men for years in order to make a documentary. So I asked Mr. Oppenheimer what was his emotional and mental state during filming.
“I had two basic rules for myself: I would never forget my moral condemnation of these crimes. The second rule is what made it difficult, which is that I would never for a second forget the humanity of the men that I am filming. And that was painful because I knew that in order to make an honest film about these people I had to be willing to become close to them… and when I became close to them, I of course opened myself up to them. I became vulnerable to the things I was hearing, and I was hearing very horrible things. And those things were very painful. And the things that we were filming was giving me nightmares, and giving my crew nightmares… I had really bad insomnia during one intense part of the shooting, and for about six months afterwards because I was afraid of the nightmares.”
This review originally appeared on the filmsinreview.com website.