The Act of Killing (2012) *****
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
Co-Dir. Christine Cynn and Anonymous
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is an iron-clad guarantee. You have not seen, nor will you ever see a movie like The Act of Killing.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer (working with two credited co-directors Christine Cynn and an Anonymous Indonesian filmmaker) has delivered a work of uncompromising horror and staggering originality. Its importance as art is matched only by its truly formidable significance as a document of humanity amidst a collection of the most repugnant individuals ever profiled in any film. What Oppenheimer creates is simply and utterly unparalleled.
The filmmaker trains his eye upon several notorious members of a death squad who committed unspeakable acts of torture and murder almost fifty years ago. They continue to live - free, wealthy and revered as heroes. They not only discuss their activities in detail, they do so with pride.
However, what separates this film from any other - documentary or drama - is that these men, part of a movement that murdered over one million people over the course of one year, are given the opportunity to recreate their killings in any way, shape or form they desire. What we get is not only a documentary portrait of these men's actions during a shameful period of history, but an examination of their creative process as they plan and execute films about their actions and, of course, we see the films themselves.
Oppenheimer chooses to begin his film with the words of Voltaire:
"It is forbidden to kill.
Therefore, all murderers are punished,
unless they kill in large numbers,
and to the sound of trumpets.”
Within this very context we're plunged into the madness that is Indonesia. Those of us who were too young to comprehend the turmoil in the East during the mid-1960s first became aware of the horrendous situation upon seeing Peter Weir's great 1983 drama The Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and the extraordinary Linda Hunt (in her legendary Academy Award winning performance). Weir created a powerful and romantic world of expatriates living in Jakarta during the end-days of Sukarno's rule in 1965 - one which was about to come crashing down. One's memories of this film are jogged briefly as Oppenheimer initially and simply relates the political and historical roots of his own film. As wonderful as Weir's picture was, its concerns are clearly centred on Western journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, business people and, of course, certain shady American officials.
What we learn at the outset of Oppenheimer's movie is that Sukarno was indeed deposed and Indonesia shifted to complete military rule. Indonesians who opposed the new government were accused of being communists - a crime punishable by death. In less than a year with aid from the west, most of it from America (naturally), over one million "communists" were murdered. Yes, many were communists, but others were labelled as such to justify killing them.
The army mostly avoided soiling its hands with the wholesale genocide of civilians opposing their rule. The two key factions utilized in the killings were gangsters and the Pancasila Youth, Indonesia’s biggest paramilitary organization – a kind of bloodthirsty cross between Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth.
The Act of Killing profiles the gangsters - in particular Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry in the northern region of Indonesia who worked in the lucrative movie ticket scalping trade. Congo and Zulkadry are seen engaging in very serious discussions with each other, however, if this were a fictional (and deeply) black comedy rather than a documentary, when Congo And Koto are paired up in the film, they resemble a kind of psychopathic team of skinny-fat comic duos from cinema's Golden Age. They're almost like perverse Indonesian versions of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, casually trading quips about how they exterminated their victims and wandering amongst terrified citizens as they try to recruit actors to play communists in the film recreations of their killings.
Congo, a tall, white-haired, dapper, stylish and still handsome old man is a hero to the government and held in the highest esteem as a poster boy for the still-powerful-and-feared paramilitary youth movement. He's especially keen to take advantage of Oppenheimer's offer to make filmed recreations of the killings and his participation is such that it will cement other key figures in the 65-66 genocide to avail themselves to the cause.
"We have to show that this is history," Congo declares. "This is who we are. In the future, people will remember."
From beginning to end, our jaws hit the floor - so repeatedly that we're virtually, eventually and almost perpetually mouth-agape at what we see and hear. When we accompany Congo to the site of executions, he convincingly informs us that the squalid, private little outdoor enclave is replete with ghosts due to the insane number of people who were murdered here.
"At first we would beat them to death, but there was too much blood," Congo complains. "When we cleaned it up it smelled awful."
Using a volunteer, Congo re-enacts his solution to the blood problem by using a simple garrote-like wire attached to a block of wood that would handily slice into the neck, strangling and nearly beheading the victims.
"I’ve tried to forget all this with good music and dancing, feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little ectasy," he says, before engaging in a mock cha-cha while he sings joyfully to himself in this bleak little killing square.
Later in the film, Congo relates how lucrative it was to scalp tickets for movies. Standing in front of the actual cinema he used to hang out at, he laments how bad it became when the communists were in power. Because American films were banned, "we gangsters made less money because there was no audience.” After the coup, financed primarily by America, Hollywood returned to the cinema with a vengeance. The scalping became lucrative again and was a nice opportunity to while away time prior to strolling into the night to perform executions. "When we’d watch happy movies, like Elvis movies – we’d leave the cinema smiling, dancing to the music." he says, leading us to a nearby location whereupon he matter-of-factly-declares: “Here was the paramilitary office where I always killed people.”
We are chilled to the bone as he describes the remaining euphoria of the Elvis Presley musicals: “I’d see a guy being interrogated. I’d give him a cigarette. I’d still be dancing and laughing - it was like we were killing - happily!"
Not only were these killings sanctioned by the government over forty years ago, but Oppenheimer demonstrates how highly regarded the gangsters and paramilitary groups are even today. At one point, Congo meets with Syamsul Arifin, governor of North Sumatra. The official happily crows: "Communism will never be accepted here because we have so many gangsters and that’s a good thing." As Congo explains, "Gangster" from the English language means “free men”. The governor nods in hearty approval: "Thugs want freedom to do things even if they’re wrong. We need only to know how to work with them."
As if this wasn't enough to instil incredulity within us, we get an opportunity to see Congo at a paramilitary rally where he appears to be a guest of honour in the presence of none other than the Vice President of Indochina Jusuf Kalla. The happy VP repeats the oft-heard "Gangsters" are "free men" phrase.
Allow me to reiterate - this a very recent event wherein the VP extols the virtues of gangsters before the multitudes. "We need a nation of free men," he asserts, beaming, and then adding, "Sometimes beating people up is necessary."
The litany of shocking acceptance of violence continues when an old newspaper editor admits how he, as a journalist in 1965, had the enviable job of interrogating communists. No matter what questions he asked them or how they replied, he'd "change their answers to make them look bad." After all, he explains, "As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them." Of course, he never had to kill any of them himself. "Why would I kill people?" he asks. "Why would I do the grunt work? I didn’t have to. One wink from me and they’d be dead." Of course, it didn't stop the communists from being beaten "to a pulp" in the newspaper offices before the gangsters dragged them away to kill them. "At first, we tried to give them to the army," Congo explains, "but the army wouldn’t take them. They’d say: 'Just dump them in the river.'"
Of course what Oppenheimer achieves goes far beyond simply cataloguing the boasts and idiotic proclamations of these killers. Where this movie completely distinguishes itself from other documentaries detailing grotesque acts of genocide is that we're following Congo and his colleagues as they're preparing the filmed reenactments of their heinous activities.
There are times when the film alternately flirts with satire of the darkest tones and surrealism that might make Luis Bunuel seem mainstream. As such, The Act of Killing is, first and foremost, a documentary that delves into the creative process of cold-hearted thugs and killers - like some perverse high-toned version of Entertainment Tonight segments or the "making of"-styled electronic press kits - we see story sessions, casting sessions, rehearsals, makeup tests and weird philosophical discussions amongst the killers that are not unlike the moronically serious manner one hears the likes of Brad Pitt explaining their boneheaded characters in the equally boneheaded blockbusters they're starring in for the boneheaded kowtowing toadies actually shooting this stuff to entice the especially boneheaded general public to spend money to see them.
This is not to say Oppenheimer fits that mould at all - he's brilliantly and insanely capturing these moments until we eventually get to the segments where the scenes are being shot, cut and screened for those killers and government collaborators who proudly and zealously participate in the process as if they were artists themselves.
We hear such unrelentingly sickening comments like:
"I know a good location for a torture scene behind the school in the old toilets."
"I hope these clothes express my vision."
Or during moments of repose both on-and-off-set:
"All this talk about human rights pisses me off. 'We want a little human rights!’ Back then, there were no human rights. A soldier has a revolution and might eventually be tried for war crimes. Not me. I’m a gangster. A free man. A movie theatre gangster. Not much education, a drop out. There are people like me everywhere in the world. War crimes! War crimes are defined by the winners."
Even more appalling is a conversation wherein the killers discuss the difference between their actions and those of the communists and try to argue - with straight faces, no less - what distinguishes "cruelty" from "sadism".
I also dare anyone seeing this film not to be shaken to the core when the men casually discuss raping communist women - with smiles on their faces and expressions of satisfaction. And when this talk turns to the rape of children and one of the men describes with a reminiscence bordering on the sentimental of how he forced himself on a 14-year-old girl, one feels like we've somehow crossed even deeper into a heart of darkness. "It’s going to be Hell for you," he says, recalling a halcyon statement he made to the little girl, "But it's going to be Heaven on Earth for me."
And the men chortle knowingly, nodding their heads.
The sad and sickening reality of humanity at its lowest position is like looking into a cinematic mirror - for these men are human and so are we. Our thoughts and actions might separate us from what we gaze into, but it is an unshakeable, undeniable fact that we share what and who we are as a species with these despicable human beings.
Once the reenactments - especially a torture scene conceived by the killers themselves and based on their past actions, the steadily mounting creepiness of the whole process pulverizes us in ways no other film possibly could. Especially harrowing is that in the process, these killers come face to face with with their own atrocities.
And this, as Austrian documentary (and now fiction) filmmaker Ulrich Seidl has proven time and time again, is the eternally horrific realization that one can indeed find humanity in the faces of those who partake (or have partaken) in the ugliest demonstrations of what are unavoidable aspects of, sadly and shockingly, extremely human behaviour.
Another confession of a killer reflects this: "I know my bad dreams came from what I did – killing people who didn’t want to die. I forced them to die."
Oppenheimer makes it clear through his line of questioning and the responses he gets that cinema itself has been a considerable influence upon these killers - especially American cinema. "We saw many sadistic movies and," Congo offers whilst citing John Wayne pictures in particular, "we were influenced by them but we were much more violent than any of those movies."
Make believe soon becomes the film's reality. One of the recreations has the ghost of a victim thanking his killer as beautiful half-naked women dance around them and the late John Barry's Academy Award Winning tune "Born Free" plays - honouring the lives and credo of killers.
While Congo sits back to watch a torture scene he participates in as an actor, he summons his tiny grandchildren. "Yan, watch this scene where Grandpa is tortured and killed," he offers in his gentlest grandfatherly tones. "Ami, come see grandpa beaten up and bleeding."
There will be no redemption for any of these men, but there is, finally, a sad, shocking and grotesque moment we share with Congo - it's haunting, sickening and accompanied in the blackness of night by the sounds of sobs and dry heaves.
"Sickening" doesn't even begin to describe this truly important film experience, but it is art - great art at that.
Enjoy the John Barry theme song for Born Free:
"The Act of Killing" plays theatrically via FilmsWeLike and can be seen in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For tickets and showtimes, visit the TIFF website HERE. There will be one show per day of the Director's Cut. The film is also playing at The Vancity (Vancouver), The Bytowne (Ottawa), The Metro (Edmonton)."