In the mid-1960s, government-supported gangsters in Indonesia killed between half a million and 2.5 million of their own countrymen. Fast-forward 50 years, you’d think the gangsters would be in prison but they are actually heroes, and the government officials who supported them still run the country.
This genocide is the subject of The Act of Killing, one of the most horrific documentaries I have ever seen. But to leave it at that sells the film short, it is also one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever seen, and the most original, and in its own way, the most inspiring, as the film completely shatters the rules for what is possible for the documentary form. Rather than focus on the victims of the genocide, the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, who is 38 and originally from Texas, follows the murderers themselves. And not only that, he encourages the murderers to make their own movie reenacting the genocide.
First, the killers gather like long-lost comrades for a platoon reunion. There is the portly and effeminate Herman Koto, he wears his hair in a ponytail and spends much of the film dressed in spectacular drag. There is the aging Anwar Congo, a charismatic guy who loves to drink and dance and walks with a certain strut. He dresses in splashy button downs reminiscent of a 1970s Miami gangster (think Al Pacino in Scarface, but Indonesian style), yet often has to readjust his fake teeth. And there is the more stern-faced Adi Zulkadry, who walks off the plane to meet his old friends wearing a T-shirt that says “Apathetic”, something you might see at a hipster bar in Brooklyn. But don’t like them too much, these men are mass murderers. The amiable Anwar has killed approximately 1,000 people, many of them strangled with a steel wire. And Adi recounts an episode where while walking across the city to his girlfriend’s house he stabbed every Chinese person he saw. Once he gets there—the girlfriend was Chinese—he kills her father, too.
How is it possible that these men are even alive and free to tell their tale? And why do they tell it so openly to Oppenheimer?
“Basically, in 1965 the Indonesian army overthrew the democratic left-leaning government of President Sukarno and used death squads to kill all enemies of the new regime,” Oppenheimer explained in a recent appearance on The Daily Show. The victims were mostly “communists”, or at least people accused of being communists: intellectuals, union organizers, and ethnic Chinese. “The people who did it,” said Oppenheimer, “have basically been in power ever since, and so when you ask them what they did, instead of being apologetic or denying it, they boast about it.”
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And they jump at the chance to become the heroes in their own movie, reenacting the murders with glee. What ensues is perhaps one of the most surreal things ever captured on film: a group of smiley murderers acting out their murders on sometimes slapdash movie sets, complete with fake blood and makeup artists and special lighting. Anwar, Herman and Adi reenact strangling people with wire, cutting their heads off with machetes and burning down entire villages, as the women and children inside—“actors” remember—wail and scream. Then Oppenheimer takes it one step further, him and the killers sit around and watch the footage they have filmed. Finally, in viewing the reenacted scenes, some of the men begin to grimace. From here, the actors fall into two groups. Some begin to show the slightest signs of remorse. But others, perhaps feeling weakened at their own repulsion, become even more defiant, even more ruthless, even stauncher defenders of their actions.
“War crimes are defined by the winners,” Adi tells Oppenheimer at one point. “I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.”
I saw the film at an art house theater in New Orleans called Zeitgeist. Movie-goers sit on sofas and comfy chairs in a space that resembles a really cool basement. Through the first part of the film there was a lot of laughing, what we were watching was simply too ridiculous, too extraordinary, too unlike anything we had ever seen before, and that made it funny, in a nervous sort of way, the darkest of dark humor. By the second part of the film the audience was dead silent. When the film concluded everyone but a few people stayed until the very end of the credits then walked out of the theater in silence. No one dared talk, for somehow talking, even saying goodbye to a friend you had bumped into at the theater, would admit culpability. And this is where the real gut-punch of the film lies, by the end us viewers have realized that we are all guilty.
“Somehow in the moment where we see a small part of ourselves in these men the whole façade where we divide the world into good guys and bad guys comes crumbling down,” said Oppenheimer in The Daily Show interview. “And we realize we are much closer to perpetrators than we would like to believe.”
And those of us in the United States truly are even closer to the perpetrators than we’d like to believe. The U.S. supported the Indonesian government throughout this entire murderous campaign, and we still support them today. “The Pentagon is seeking a 50 percent increase in funds to support foreign militaries and training in the Southeast Asia region, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Kuala Lampur today,” reads a Bloomberg article tweeted yesterday by Oppenheimer. Hagel is on a week-long visit to Asia and plans to stop in, among other places, Indonesia.
The Act of Killing was produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Not surprising to see these names attached to such a documentary, but getting to them took some work. One of the producers initially involved with the film reached out to Herzog while he was in London and explained there was a young director eager to meet and discuss his new film. Herzog, who surely has heard such a pitch before, said he was busy that evening and was leaving by plane the following morning so there really wasn’t much time, but perhaps this director could drop by for a few minutes during breakfast. Oppenheimer did.
“He opened his laptop and showed me an eight minute excerpt from his film,” Herzog said in an interview with VICE. “I looked at it and immediately knew I had never seen anything like it. I had never seen anything as powerful and as frightening and as surreal as what was on the screen, and I said this is big, this is truly big.”
And it is. The film pushes the boundaries of film itself, and it is pushes every single person who watches it to think a little bit harder about just what it means to be a human being in this world. Where we go from there is up to us.