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DVD Review – The Act Of Killing

3 min read

The Act of Killing is not your typical documentary, in that it asks the documentary subjects to tell their story any way they choose, so it becomes a story about a telling of story. In this case, the story they are telling is of the mass killings in which they participated in following Indonesia’s failed 30 September movement, where gangster squads killed an estimated half-a-million communists (and also intellectuals and ethnic Chinese) as part of a political purge following the coup attempt.  Several key death-squad leaders are assembled and asked to recreate scenes of their killings, in any way they choose. The results vary and range from Hollywood style film noir scenes, epic slaughter of an entire village, and choreographed musical numbers.

The Act of Killing InsertThe Joshua Oppenheimer directed documentary focuses on a few of the most notorious death squad leaders, and in-between their re-enacting the scenes we get to peer into their daily lives and get a picture of how the result of their actions has shaped, and even continues to influence, Indonesia’s cultural and political system. This includes the open shakedown of a group of Chinese merchants for bribe money, bizarre political rallies with paramilitary groups, and the campaigning by one of the former gangsters for MP, whose apparent sole purpose for gaining office is so that he can force property owners to pay bribes by creating false building code violations. Their appearance on an Indonesian television program makes it clear these men are both feared and regarded by a society that seems content to not dwell too deeply into a very dark period in their history, but rather accept the propaganda they are being fed.

The Act of Killing is a multi-faceted gem, and has implications on so many different levels:  politically, racially, socio-economically…psychologically. But the most interesting aspect of The Act of Killing is how the death squad leaders come face to face with their own actions.  In the process of making the film, after the completion of several key scenes, some stop and question whether their own portrayal of the historical events could be very detrimental to their “image” by contradicting their carefully fabricated version of the truth, ruining years of propaganda, and revealing the cold brutality they inflicted on a mostly innocent population.

One of the primary subjects of the film, Anwar Congo, was one of the most brutal and notorious killers of the era and we see over the course of the film, as he is forced to recall details of his actions, he has mostly blocked out the whole period .Like the rest of the country, he has failed to even engage in much self-reflection despite the fact that he is still haunted today in nightmares by they open eyes of a man he beheaded. The re-enactment process causes him to reflect on his experiences more and during one of his re-enactments in which he actually portrays the victim, he is left deeply traumatized. While screening the final scene, he achieves, for the first time, an awareness of the true nature and brutality of his actions and empathy for his victims. After being reminded by one of the filmmakers that the feelings of terror he felt while shooting the scene (knowing he wasn’t really going to die) were probably miniscule compared to what the real victims felt, his self-realization becomes profound and substantial.  He then returns to the scene of his crimes where, prior to filming his re-enactments, he engaged in giddy demonstrations of his wire strangulations.  Only now, the site of it makes him physically ill and he can barely speak in between his violent heaving.  It is truly astonishing to watch this transformation, the materialization of remorse on camera, and I had to watch it twice because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  It’s a fascinating subject and an incredible achievement in documentary film making.