The Act of Killing (2012) — Image via actofkilling.com

The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (2012)

In 1965, Anwar Congo, the protagonist of Joshua Oppenheimer’s quasi-documentary film, The Act of Killing (Jagal), was a small-time gangster in Medan, the largest city on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra. At the time, the Indonesian Communist Party was gaining influence in the region and was pressing for, among other things, a ban on Western films, which would have cut into Congo’s profits as a ticket scalper at the local movie theater. So when, in the wake of an attempted military coup, nationalist elements in Indonesia called for the “extermination” of the Communist Party, Congo joined in, becoming one of the city’s most feared and renowned executioners of Communists, suspected Communists, and ethnic Chinese.

History, and the history of the 20th Century in particular, is unfortunately rife with examples of this sort of brutality. But in most cases, the regime or faction responsible for a period of mass killings eventually falls from power, and those directly responsible are brought to some form of justice, often allowing those who have benefited politically or economically to wash their hands of everything that has happened. Not so in Indonesia. While the “New Order” regime of military dictator Suharto, whose rise to power was aided by the killings of 1965-66, officially ended in 1998, its remnants are still extremely influential, and Congo and his compatriots are still considered heroes by Indonesia’s powerful, gangster-affiliated nationalist movements.

The Act of Killing (2012) — Image via actofkilling.comThe Act of Killing is, ultimately, the effort of Oppenheimer and his collaborators (including many Indonesians who have chosen to remain anonymous) to understand and respond to this disturbing state of affairs. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Oppenheimer has convinced Congo and several of his associates to participate in the making of what they apparently believe is a historical fiction film glorifying their actions. These associates include Herman Koto, Congo’s thuggish and opportunistic sidekick, and Adi Zulkadry, another former executioner who has left the city but returns to participate in the film. All are fans of Hollywood filmmaking and enthusiastic about using its tools to tell their story.

Initially, most of the participants take a starkly matter-of-fact approach to talking about and recreating the events of 1965-66. Congo calmly describes how, after the site of most of his executions became too choked with blood, he settled upon the less bloody method of the garrote to do away with his victims. The editor of a local newspaper explains how he identified alleged Communists, made up evidence against them if necessary, and then delivered their names to Congo and his associates for execution. In the process of filming a scene, Koto instructs a group of women and children to plead for mercy, apparently taking pleasure in their accurate recreation of what really happened during the mass killings. Example after horrifying example creates the impression that everyone involved in the project thinks that what happened four decades earlier was completely normal, acceptable and worth celebrating.

The Act of Killing (2012) — Image via actofkilling.comWe also learn more about Indonesia’s subculture of preman, lumpen thugs who act both as traditional gangsters — running protection rackets and illegal businesses — and as a quasi-independent arm of the state, doing the sort of “dirty work” that cannot be officially condoned and gaining tolerance for their criminal activities in return. As multiple interviewees point out, the word preman is derived from the Dutch term for “free men,” and the participants take great pride in this notion that they are independent and in control of their own destinies. As we learn, the preman are closely linked with paramilitary organizations such as the Pancasila Youth, the local branch of which seems to consider Congo a sort of founding father.

Eventually, some cracks emerge in the macho, celebratory surface that the former executioners try to maintain. We learn that Congo is haunted by his experiences, and as the making of the film forces him to confront the suffering of his victims, he is deeply affected and confused. Zulkadry, on the other hand, purports to understand and accept that his actions were cruel, immoral, and far from glamorous, but he nevertheless asserts that they were justified and that social peace and order are dependent upon maintaining a positive public perception of them. (Meanwhile, Koto remains wholly unreflective. He seems primarily concerned with introducing a comic element to the film by dressing up in drag, and at one point, he decides to run for office with the stated goal of being able to extort more money from business owners.)

Combining traditional documentary-style interviews and observations with scenes from the film the participants apparently think they are making, The Act of Killing takes viewers on a horrifying journey through a world where things seem simultaneously familiar and completely out of joint. At times, one is almost thankful that these mass murderers are at least honest about what they have done  and willing to think about the implications of their actions. At the same time, the fact that these people are walking freely and even considered among the most honored members of their society is supremely disturbing. Appropriately enough, Oppenheimer concludes the film with two scenes that juxtapose the closest the film gets to the naked truth of what Congo and his compatriots did with the fantasy that has been constructed around their actions — an unsettling ending to a film about a wholly unsettled historical evil.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.