CAPSULE: An oddly surreal documentary made by a film crew largely working anonymously. The camera focuses on a major executioner from the 1965 killings following the military coup in Indonesia. To get him and some of his friends to be truthful the company films them re-enacting their murders in the style of American gangster films and lavish musicals, claiming to film them for a movie. The killers apparently have never given much thought to regretting their actions. Joshua Oppenheimer, Crystine Cynn, and a third person unnamed directed this film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In 1965 a coup overthrew Sukarno's government of Indonesia and placed it in the hands of the military, making Suharto president. The military claimed it was saving the country from Communism. More than a million political enemies were accused of being Communist and then were murdered. Today the country is still in the hands of the military and people who did the killing for the government are now treated as heroes of the state.
The expression "the banality of evil" has rarely taken so concrete a form as it has in Anwar Congo, a lover of movies, music, and fine clothes and also the mass murderer of over a thousand people. Joshua Oppenheimer, Crystine Cynn, and an unnamed person direct THE ACT OF KILLING. There is a lot of smiling in this film. Congo will spontaneously do a little dance when he is happy. The word key to this documentary is "impunity." Anwar Congo proudly admits he had led a death squad in 1965 and 1966 and killed over a thousand people working as a "gangster" for the military government of Indonesia. He also extorted money from the Chinese murdering those who did not pay.
The filmmakers now invite Congo to relive those killings to be filmed as Hollywood-style fantasies. Congo sees this as his chance to be in the movies. The killers re-enact their murders in the style of their favorite film genres the gangster films, lavish musicals, and westerns. These scenes have a feel as surreal as anything in the film ARGO. The plot is worthy of a comedy, but it was the actual strategy the filmmakers used and it got the killers to tell very openly about their crimes. And we see in one of Congo's fantasies put on film a lavish musical in which Congo imagines his victims will return to thank him.
For Congo, killing several hundred people personally was a job and a way to earn money for niceties like nice clothing. He is proud of finding a way to kill that made clean-up easier. Because the government who paid him is still in power, he is treated by friends and neighbors like what he thinks he is, just a hard-working, fun-loving, former employee of the government. And if the government called people communists he had no scruples about killing them.
The filmmakers interview Congo and his friends, including the paramilitary Herman Koto. And the killers openly talk about the days they had their brand of fun killing for the government. They candidly talk about raping and murder and the pleasure it brought them. They take pride about being a "gangster" which in their language is the same as a "free men." Credits for the production are mostly anonymous in a country in which the government is probably not done killing.
This film manages at times to be funny and others times horrendously tragic. In many ways it is just extraordinary. And few documentaries can match the power of the last ten minutes of this film. I rate THE ACT OF KILLING a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. This is a film that is hard to watch and just as hard to forget.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2375605/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_act_of_killing/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper