Movies arrive so late here in Japan that they often come burdened with the weight of expectation. In the case of “The Act of Killing,” it comes in the wake of near universal critical acclaim, including a No. 1 spot on Sight & Sound magazine’s critics poll and an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. Could it be that good, I wondered, this doc about Indonesia’s political genocide between 1965-66?
“The Act of Killing” is a remarkable film, and one of the most disturbing I have ever seen. It’s impossible to watch this film and not walk out of the cinema with your mind racing at its implications; this film will leave you wondering if there’s any hope for mankind. It is a true journey into the heart of darkness.
In 2001-02, director Joshua Oppenheimer visited Indonesia for the first time, to explore issues of globalization and why its workforce remains powerless and exploited. He found that all paths led to the mass killing of suspected leftists in the mid ’60s, when roughly a million people were murdered, often by their neighbors. Oppenheimer tried to make a film about the victims, but even today, people are too scared to talk. So he changed tack and began making a film about the killers, who were only too happy to talk, even boast, about what they had done. Oppenheimer gave these elderly men cameras and other resources to make their own cinematic depiction of what they had done, using cinema as a mirror in the hope these men might see their own reflections.
The results are startling, and often surreal. (Which is probably why Werner Herzog signed on as executive producer.) What is one to make of Anwar Congo, a man who can show the filmmakers how he strangled victims to death with a wire apparatus — less blood that way — and then break into a jaunty little dance? Congo, one of several former vigilantes who appear in the film, has a ridiculously flashy fashion sense, loves American movies, and starts filming reenactments of his own experiences as a kind of gaudy spaghetti western musical, with his portly gangster friend Herman Koto often appearing in drag. The duo going bowling is a comical sight — they’re almost like The Dude and Walter in “The Big Lebowski” — and then you remember what Congo did and the laugh catches in your throat.
Oppenheimer follows Congo as he meets his compadres from the old days. Shockingly, they are newspaper publishers, governors, ministers; “respectable” men, with families, kids, and blood on their hands.
Congo and his friends re-enact scenes of torture, including the massacre of an entire village, women and children included, then go out and have drinks, and even show the footage to their grandchildren. During the film Congo alone admits to having nightmares, and it is his journey the viewer hangs on, the remote hope that even one of these bastards will have some inkling of the inhumanity of their actions. The ending will leave you speechless.