Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s surreal and harrowing documentary The Act of Killing takes an unusual look at the mass murders of suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965.
After a military coup the paramilitary took over and small-time” movie-theater gangsters” turned into ruthless executors. They modeled themselves on their silver-screen heroes and like the men in the mafia movies they felt no remorse or pity when doing the most horrendous of acts.
In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer gives these unrepentant murderers the opportunity to tell the story from their point of view by making a film about their past. This creates a bizarre and surreal mix of factual interviews with death-squad leaders and politicians interspersed with staged murder scenes, colourful musical numbers and random western sequences.
What is most shocking about this unusual documentary is how very casual the men and Indonesian society are about their past. The perpetrators seem to revel in their past acts and obviously enjoy recreating their ‘glory days’. They talk about the importance of preserving history and how what they did was right. They are treated like national heroes while describing how they slaughtered men, chopped of their heads and raped young girls.
At times it could almost seem gimmicky the way Oppenheimer approaches this unconfronted past, however it turns out that, by allowing the men to re-enact and recreate their actions, it brings them face-to-face with a past they never thought needed revisiting or questioning.
This isn’t the case for one former death-squad leader, Anwar Congo. He admits, the only one who does, to having problems with his genocidal past. And when he puts himself into the place of a former victim of his something begins to change. After avoiding the experiences of his past for so many years Congo is confronted with acts he can no longer hide from.
The Act of Killing is not an easy film to watch and may prove too much for some. However it tells a story about a past only few know about and gives an insight into Indonesian society that is very revealing. An unusual, award winning film that is very honest, unexpected and well worth the ticket.