directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
by Angelo Muredda Like Claude Lanzmann's otherwise incomparable Shoah, Joshua Oppenheimer's bracing documentary The Act of Killing reanimates a historical catastrophe without leaning on archival footage. In relying primarily on testimonials grounded at the site of violence, both films argue for a more radical than usual method of bearing witness to unspeakable genocides--in this case, the murder of nearly a million communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese in mid-1960s Indonesia by a cadre of paramilitaries and gangsters who were backed by an American-funded military and subsequently never brought to trial. Yet as much as each project seeks to drag a monstrous past into the light by shooting at the present scene of the crime, Oppenheimer's work is given an even more surreal kick by virtue of the incredible status still afforded to members of the killing squads, politically-connected goons who openly boast of their murders to anyone within earshot, including the film crew.
Oppenheimer's premise, spelled out onscreen in a series of captions superimposed onto images of empty urban spaces like restaurants and skateparks, is that, struck by their candid disclosures in everyday conversation, he asked the killers to act out their murders to understand how they could have done it. The aim, if you trust in such declarations of intent, is that the film might in turn "follow that process, and document its consequences"--for us as viewers, for the Indonesian people who've lost countless family members without any real acknowledgement, and for the unprosecuted criminals themselves. What's most horrifying and compelling about the result, though, isn't the high-concept nature of the recreations, which allow the thugs to play everything from director, makeup artist, and star in gaudy genre renditions of their brutal life's work. Rather, it's the fact that these monstrous skits, steered by the perpetrators in lieu of any living victims, are being put on at or near the site of the original atrocities at a remove of nearly fifty years. The irony is not lost on Oppenheimer that this shoddy, fascistic dress-up is the closest we may ever come to a video archive.
The Act of Killing hones in on three high-ranking offenders, reserving the most screen-time and moral prodding for Anwar Congo, who started out as a so-called movie-theatre gangster, scalping tickets to Hollywood releases. The U.S. is never far from their minds, with one unrepentant gangster musing that when George W. Bush was in power, Guantanamo Bay was "right," and pointing out that Americans have long justified their own destruction of Native-American culture. His relativism isn't presented as an equivocation, but as a point of pride--indeed, he joyfully surmises from the American example, history is written by the winners, and he happens to be one. But it's Anwar's psychosis that has the most distinctly American flavour, coming filtered through a rich mental database of torture scenes from war and crime movies that, he brags, his own killings surpassed in gruesomeness. Oppenheimer gives his star either the benefit of the doubt or the appropriate tools to self-destruct, depending on how you see it, framing the planning phase of one re-enactment (which Anwar sees fit to dance to) as the start of a set-piece from an MGM musical. It isn't the genres Anwar finds so amenable to his own life that are indicted here so much as their contagiousness, the fact that one can soak in the heightened reality of a gangster movie or a musical and forget oneself.
Oppenheimer doesn't think much of such forgetting, and paradoxically neither do his subjects, who frequently brag--in public forums that inexplicably champion them as heroes--that people must remember their history. Late in the film, after he has admitted to feeling haunted by the people he's killed and has just re-enacted an especially violent murder with himself in place of the victim, Anwar becomes physically ill. You could think of his vomiting as an endorsement of Oppenheimer's approach, which treats the cinema as a purgative. It wouldn't be the only moment of such back-patting: Too often, The Act of Killing indulges in bottom drawer irony, holding on these men just long enough for them to say something absurd, then cutting away, as if in a Borat sketch with considerably higher stakes. The trashy Indonesian melodrama he stages in pieces throughout, featuring a number of young maids emerging from the mouth of a fish and actors playing the murdered thanking their killers for sending them to Heaven under a redemptive waterfall, also hits squarely on the nose. It's the moments of ambiguity that resonate, as in a final interview with Anwar after he reviews the tape of his most affecting killing. "I can feel what the people felt," he says, almost through tears, inspiring the normally mum director to remind him that this is only a movie, while his actual victims lost their lives. Anwar's response, that he can "really feel it," justifies the whole strange project. Somewhere between the eerie last words of HAL 9000 and a deathbed tell-all, it's the confession of a consummate performer moved by his own act.