‘The Act of Killing’ is a haunting documentary that follows the lives of Anwar Congo and his friends who are living in Indonesia. In one of the opening scenes of the film Anwar proudly asserts that he is a gangster, explaining, ‘the word gangster comes from English; meaning free men’ however it is later revealed that being a ‘gangster’ meant that he assisted the Indonesian army in killing more then one million alleged communists from 1965 to 1966 and has received no persecution for his crimes.
On the documentary, the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer says, “The Act of Killing is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built. Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan génocidaires, Anwar and his friends have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own triumphant history.” (Oppenheimer 2012)
One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is the lack of remorse that almost all of the people interviewed show. In one scene Anwar leads the audience to the rooftop of a small store, revealing, “there are many ghosts here because many people were killed here… At first we beat them to death but there was too much blood, there was so much blood here… It smelled awful… To avoid the blood I used a system” (The Act of Killing 2012) Demonstrating on a friend Anwar wraps a piece of wire around the neck of the man and shows how he would have pulled it to decapitate a head. His attention to the detail and muttering of “face that way, we need to re-enact this properly” is particularly chilling. He then begins to dance, unphased by what he had just demonstrated moments ago. At another point, further in the film Anwar reveals that he had personally killed more than one thousand communists.
My personal reaction to the film was one of horror at the disturbing and grotesque atrocities that the protagonist Anwar and his accomplices committed. However the outgoing and friendly personalities that they held for the duration of the film and Anwar’s slow but eventual decline into regret over his actions prompted me to feel an unusual sense of empathy for these individuals. When interviewed on the film, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer says, “I think by identifying with Anwar, audiences are forced to confront the fact that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe. I think the whole tradition in which documentaries tend to tell the stories of survivors and victims exists, in part, to reassure ourselves that we are not perpetrators, however, the fact is we are much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe.” (Inside Indonesia 2013)
Joshua Oppenheimer 2012, The Act of Killing synopsis, The Act of Killing, viewed 28th April 2015, <http://theactofkilling.com/synops/>
The Act of Killing 2012, motion picture, Final Cut for Real, Indonesia
Inside Indonesia 2013, An interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, viewed 28th April 2015, <http://www.insideindonesia.org/an-interview-with-joshua-oppenheimer>