A blood-boiling look at a crime whose perpetrators remain national heroes in their native Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” challenges those responsible for carrying out the executions of nearly a million convicted “communists” — technically, anyone whose views conflict with the current regime — with a chance to re-create scenes about the murders in whatever way they choose. The incendiary experiment is a bombshell, both for opening the world’s eyes to Indonesia’s recent bloody history and vis a vis the tradition of objective nonfiction filmmaking. Already a hot potato at its Telluride premiere, pic will stir controversy wherever it travels.
Documentary filmmakers are frequently criticized for being too judgmental toward their subjects. In Oppenheimer’s case, the opposite may be true, as the helmer expresses no qualms about giving unrepentant killers the means to create their own propaganda. What he and co-director Christine Cynn do reserve, however, is final cut, maintaining ultimate control over how to present both the re-enactment exercises and the extensive behind-the-scenes footage.
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Leading with an apt quotation from Voltaire — “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets” — the doc unnervingly illustrates the way history is written by the victors. As explained in the press notes but not in the film, the directing duo initially attempted to make a more traditional reconciliation-focused docu featuring survivors’ testimony about the mass murders carried out after Indonesia’s 1965 revolution, but encountered too much pressure from authorities to follow through.
By shifting their attention to the perpetrators, however, the filmmakers found that the obstacles suddenly disappeared. In charismatic freelance killers Anwar Congo and Herman Koto — small-time gangsters responsible for dispatching countless convicted communists back in the day — the pic finds two oddly compelling personalities sufficiently movie-obsessed to take the bait: Congo outfits himself like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation movie, while Koto takes the flamboyance one step farther, enthusiastically cross-dressing for the cameras. It’s as if both men had been waiting their entire lives for a film crew to discover them, and given the opportunity, they obligingly dig their own graves.
After a few scenes of straightforwardly observing the two petty thugs casting for extras in what will become the docu’s gut-wrenching climax — the burning of a communist village that Congo and Koto boastfully intend to “make something that’s even more sadistic than what what you see in movies about Nazis” — “The Act of Killing” begins to reveal the disturbing influence movies had on the most violent period of their life. In one scene, Congo explains how they would stumble directly from the cinema over to the paramilitary office, where they would perform the executions “happily,” role-playing as their favorite Hollywood stars (the way American gangbangers presumably look to the antiheroes of “Scarface” and “The Sopranos” today).
The film unequivocally reveals how such entertainment threaded into the killers’ own self-image, serving as both encouragement and coping mechanism for their actions. Now, Congo and Koto return the favor, candidly describing their past rapes and murders, staging a brutal interrogation scene on an impressionistically lit set and even going so far as to demonstrate the most effective way to kill without spilling too much blood.
The helmers pause on occasion to observe their subjects’ reactions to periodic work-in-progress screenings, and at one such opportunity, Congo invites his grandchildren to watch the gory depiction of his past exploits. Later in the film, the project is featured as the subject of a local talkshow on Televisi Republik Indonesia, the state-owned TV network, where the gushy host excitedly interviews the two celebs.
ThroughCongo and Koto, the helmers gain access to a dozen or so other key figures involved in the mass killings, ranging from Ibrahim Sinik, a prominent newspaper publisher who pronounced many of the communist death sentences, to North Sumatran youth minister Sakhyan Asmara, who interrupts the climactic Kampung Kolam re-enactment to coach the paramilitary extras on how to appear more realistic.
Never before has anyone made a documentary like “The Act of Killing,” and the filmmakers seem at a loss in terms of how to organize the many threads of what they capture. There’s Indonesia’s back-history to be established, the underlying concept of the experiment to be communicated, footage from Congo and Koto’s shoots to share (including an orphaned musical number outside an abandoned fish-shaped restaurant that serves as a recurring motif throughout). Despite a team of five editors — not to mention advice from producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, plus a small army of contributors who opted to remain anonymous — the dense result feels overly discursive, frequently guilty of losing its own thread. Still, essential and enraging, “The Act of Killing” is a film that begs to be seen, then never watched again.