Act of Killing: Audacious, Surreal Documentary

the_act_of_killing_posterJoshua Oppenheimer has audaciously described his deeply unsettling political documentary, “The Act of Killing,” as an “allegory” for Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war, a provocative, if dubious claim.

Nonetheless, “The Act of Killing” is easily one of the most disturbing features I have seen all year long, one that raises socio-political, moral-ethical, and even filmic questions (the power of the image, the responsibility of the filmmaker to his subject and to his public).

A Danish-funded project, Äct of Killing” boasts two major non-fiction filmmakers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, as executive producers, and you can see what drew them to the unique material, which bears historical and universal implications.

The scary, gory tale at the center of the docu is set in Medan, Indonesia, going back to the 1960s. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in September 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and liberal intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

I expect “Act of Killing” to divide the audience and applaud the distributor for releasing it theatrically. In its darker than dark humor, and musical numbers, the feature reaches the most bizarre and surreal effects likely to be seen this year in any movie.

The Texas-born, Denmark-based director Oppenheimer says he began his seven-year shoot by interviewing victims of the massacre. But then he decided to focus on the perpetrators of the crime, former death squad bosses who have remained unpunished and (for the most part) stubbornly unapologetic. Oppenheimer then took his work one step further by asking his subjects to reflect on their sins in a sly mode through reenactments of their crimes on camera.

The result is a bizarre and intriguing film not just about Indonesia at a particular historical time, but one about more general issues, such as the corrosive effects of torture, political corruption, mass genocide.

Oppenheimer gained access to his subjects by befriending some of the vet gangsters who once ran paramilitary murder squads in North Sumatra, a province of 14 million people. Predictably, the men are both feared and celebrated, despised as villains by some, while praised as heroes by others.

The men confess on camera about the “good ol’ times, when they could torture and murder any person suspected of communist affiliation or leftist sympathy. Protected by government impunity, they have benefited from their connections to right-wing militias and corrupt politicians. They still openly control the region’s protection rackets and run for political office to boost their extortion empires.

But this is the most original and scary aspect of the docu: For his project, Oppenheimer has invited the killers to recreate their crimes on camera in any Hollywood genre (or genres) of their choice. As a result, we get a hybrid of a docu that contains elements of crime-gangster films as well as gory horror bloodbaths, with cross-dressing musical numbers used as pauses, transitions, and interludes. You will walk out after seeing this surreal movie provoked, upset, and bewildered.

A shrewd filmmaker, Oppenheimer knows that his feature would be more effective if it has individual protagonists, rather than an assortment of anonymous killers. Thus, the chief subjects are Anwar Congo and to a lesser extent Herman Koto, both veteran gangsters. In the course of the film, with see Anwar Congo and his chums dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as cowboys out of Westerns. Their forays into filmmaking is being celebrated in the media and debated on TV, even though Congo and his friends are mass murderers.

Shockingly, these men are eager, even proud, to tell their tales in gory graphic detail. Congo’s cold-hearted peer Adi Zulkadry holds that his acts were justified (perhaps even rational from his POV), because he committed them successfully, got away with them uncaught, and continues to be praised for them by at least some members of the community. One of Congo’s associates boasts about raping and killing underage girls, and another relates in a casual, nonchalant manner how he murdered the father of his Chinese girlfriend.

Congo is the only one to admit some moral qualms, or feelings of ambiguity over his outrageous past. But he too relishes in demonstrating his favored method of execution, which is garroting with a wire necklace, because it’s “quick, easy, and not too messy.”
Congo, who claims over 1,000 lives, says he suffers from guilty nightmares, such as the piercing eyes of a man he once decapitated with a machete. Quite revealingly, when he relives some of his crimes on camera, he plays the victim rather than killer. In a rare moment of weakness, he even shows a tearful display onscreen. Is he sincere? Is he acting for the camera? Is he elevating himself above the others?

To prevent possible reprisals and other measures, the film’s Indonesian crewmembers are credited as “Anonymous.”

It’s pointless to complain about excessive running time and some repetitions when the material at hand is so jaw-dropping–both fascinating and horrifying.


Rating Time: 117 minutes
Released by Drafthouse Films
Production company: Final Cut for Real, Denmark
Producers: Joram ten Brink, Anne Köhncke, Michael Uwemedimo, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Executive producers: Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, André Singer, Torstein Grude, Bjarte Mørner Tveit, Joram ten Brink
Cast: Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, Herman Koto, Jusuf Kalla
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Co-directors: Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Cinematographers: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree
Editors: Niels Pagh Andersen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Ariadna Fatjó-Vilas Mestre
Music: Elin Øyen Vister, Karsten Fundal