Human atrocity has a long, dark history and horrors will continue to be committed long into the future. Their documentation is a fascinating, if morbid, subject; they can be told as heroic victories or devastating tragedies, often depending (as one perpetrator of the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 points out) on who won the conflict.
Film reconstructions and historical dramas are many in number and some of the most famous (and greatest) films of all time have as their subject war crimes, widespread execution and genocide. What makes The Act Of Killing stand out from the others is a combination of two factors. The first is that it does not recount the atrocities committed in Indonesia in the 1960s from the viewpoint of the victims but the perpetrators. Joshua Oppenheimer, the film’s director, went to Indonesia and met two former sellers of black market cinema tickets who, after the political unrest of 1965, were promoted to becoming executioners. The crimes they have committed are unspeakable, but as is explained to us over the credits, Oppenheimer has asked them not only to recount their crimes but film reconstructions of them. They do so happily, in fact they seem to be proud of what they have done.
The second is that, unlike most other films that have as their subject a particular human tragedy, this documentary does not seek to tell the narrative of its trajectory. Instead, Oppenheimer hones in on the individuals who have committed these crimes and through interviews with them and helping them with their reconstructions he explores the act of killing and how a human being could possibly commit so much horror and still retain his humanity.
Oppenheimer has done a brave thing. In making his film in this way, he has put to sleep the notion that the men who committed these crimes are simply evil and inhuman. Recall Schindler’s List, a great film without doubt, but the Nazis are presented as cartoonish in their evil and villainy. Here we are presented to men who have committed just as much evil and yet there is no cartoonish villainy to be found.
Anwar Congo, the gangster that Oppenheimer has chosen to focus on, has a charming smile and a loving family. He likes the movies and he enjoys spending time with his grandchildren. With an almost obsequious willingness, he shows to the camera the easiest way to kill a man; with wire. He divulges his wealth of knowledge on the act of killing sometimes as if he were handing down expert tips onto an apprentice with the good heart of a wise elder. He is polite, obliging and even funny. The evil he has committed is almost irreconcilable with the image we are presented with of this man. For that, without doubt, is what he is. He is not some evil drooling monstrosity. Were it not for the information we had already been given about him in the opening credits, he could be mistaken for a doting grandfather and a charming old man.
The Act of Killing is an astonishing film. It is profoundly disturbing and at turns incredibly realistic before diving into the realms of the colourful surreal. It is a great achievement, a film with something very important to say about human evil and humanity in general. It does not make for an easy watch and the fact that we are brought so close to these murderers- even despite ourselves, almost (but not quite) sympathising with them by the end – is frightening; but it proves an important and revelatory point. This is the most intensely, painfully human film of the year thus far and one of the best. Don’t miss it.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, James Martin (July ’13)