In honour of the fact that Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, has been rightly awarded a MacArthur Genius Award today — here’s a review I wrote for Beacon last year of the film. I’m very much looking forward to his follow-up The Look of Silence.
The Act of Killing has a claim to be not only the film of the year, but one of the best documentaries ever made. By exploring what it takes to be a mass murderer, it offers an unprecedented insight into the human capacity for evil.
The Act of Killing tells the story of the gangsters who helped carry out the killing of up to 2.5 million alleged Communists during the early years of the Indonesia’s military dictatorship in the mid-1960s. But its focus goes far beyond that country’s corrupt and horrific history. Using the unique concept of having these men recreate their crimes, it forces them to truly confront their actions for the first time, and becomes an unprecedented exploration of the human capacity for evil and the coping mechanisms needed to deal with life as a mass murderer.
The film provides us with four friends, each responsible for hundreds of murders and much else besides. I saw them as four archetypes for evil: the true believer, the psychopath, the beast and the fool. Each in their own way, they offer a way to investigate the blurred line between personal and public responsibility – the age-old debate that arises every time a foot-soldier with blood on his hands claims he was ‘just carrying out orders’.
The four men believe they are taking part in a fictional film that will glorify them as outlaw heroes in the mould of James Cagney or John Wayne, who they idolized themselves at the time. They recreate their past lives willingly – boastfully – and they visit the locations of their real crimes, eagerly seeking to refresh their memories for inspiration.
The true believer is Anwar Congo (above). He gleefully recounts how he used to emerge from the cinema hall, still high from the escapist excitement of a film and cross the road to a terrace where he would torture and kill Communists, usually strangling them with a wire to limit the blood. “We were in such a good mood from the film … we would do the killing happily,” he says, with a grin, and goes on to demonstrate his cha-cha-cha dancing skills on the spot where he killed as many as 1,000 people.
Anwar is a true believer because he bought into the propaganda campaign of the day that depicted Communists as evil, bloodthirsty maniacs out to destroy Indonesia. As the film progresses, and he is forced to act out the brutalities he committed for real many years ago, his comforting rationalisations start to erode and he begins to understand why he suffers terrible nightmares. Particularly in scenes where he plays the victim, he starts to see for the first time that his own victims were not some abstract enemy to be destroyed, but real human beings like himself. The dawning realisation of his own evil – often faltering and ambiguous – is one of the greatest narrative arcs in film history.
In stark contrast is the psychopath, a man Adi Zulkadry (above, left). In one of the key exchanges of the film, he and Anwar discuss an anti-Communist propaganda film that was repeatedly forced on every adult and child during the 1960s. Anwar seems to believe in its message, or at least needs to believe in it. Adi knows full well that it is a lie, and is not afraid to say so. He suffers no nightmares, has no feelings of guilt over what he has done. He sees himself as a winner in the political game of life, and his victims as losers. The powerful dictate what is right and wrong; any claims to universal morality are hypocritical and naive. “When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. Now it is wrong,” he points out. He is a psychopath because he appears to lack all compassion, but even here, we see signs that he still relies on political rationalisations to justify himself.
The other two protagonists are simpler and more brutish, especially Safit Pardede, the beast (driving, below). He is a true monster, a man who gloats over fond memories of the 14-year-olds he raped. He is a classic thug – devoid of charm or basic human decency. He, too, lacks compassion but he has no need to rationalise. He is a primitive brute, and also irredeemable.
The final member of the group is Herman Koto (below). He is presented as a fool – a fat slob who seems content to be the butt of the jokes, often dressed up in the most ridiculous costumes as a woman or a gaudy spirit. It is not surprising, perhaps, that he is the one who, midway through the film, gets approached to be a politician, and happily relates his excitement over all the money he will be able to make in bribes. He is the dupe that can be controlled by more calculating minds. At times, he seems like the one most aware that they have done wrong. When the others start debating whether it’s a good idea to present all of their crimes on film, he fails to see the problem – if it’s the truth, then why hide it, he argues. But he is a follower, easily swayed by his friends, too cowardly to listen to the voice in his head that tells him what he is doing is wrong.
There is so much more to appreciate in this film – the genius of the conceit is matched by its beautiful visuals and morbidly humorous tone. It also presents a terrifying picture of the ongoing problems in Indonesia, since all these gangsters are members of the paramilitary Pancashila Youth which continues to operate as an essentially criminal branch of the state. It has three million members and is involved in everything from smuggling to gambling to extortion, while also suppressing any political dissent to the military-dominated government.
But its greatest gift is to reveal with such unprecedented clarity these four aspects of evil, and the humanity that allows them to exist. As director Joshua Oppenheimer said in one interview: “the big question is whether people have … the courage to see a small part of themselves in Anwar.” These are not strange human anomalies, they are distressingly common. Authoritarian regimes can count on a huge supply of brutes and fools, but they can also count on good men who convince themselves to do wrong.
As a final point, it’s worth noting the indictment of Hollywood that runs as a subtext throughout the film. These men are able to regale in their status as gangsters and outlaws in large part because such characters have been lionized in the American movies they watched with such relish before carrying out many of their crimes. If anyone wonders how they could so happily depict themselves as killers, torturers and criminals, just recall how the Italian mafia has been presented on film. We love the horse’s head in the bed, and the eyeball popped out in the vice; we feel a warm, familial love for Tony Soprano. Real-life maniacs love them, too.