Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.
2012. Not Rated, 115 minutes.
Anwar Congo
Herman Koto
Syamsul Arifin
Ibrahim Sinik
Safit Pardede
Adi Zulkadry

Just when I thought I've seen everything, I sat down to watch The Act of Killing. The story of this particular documentary begins way back in 1965. During this time, the Indonesian government was taken over by the military. One of the things they sought to do was rid the country of Communists. No deportations going on here. Anyone even suspected of being a Communist was murdered. By Communist, I mean any person who disagreed with the new regime and/or any Chinese person. Over the next year or so, anywhere from five hundred thousand to one million people were killed.

I was wrong. That's not the beginning of our story, merely the backdrop. The actual beginning is the fact that most of these killings weren't carried out by the military, themselves. Most were done by two closely linked entities, the Pemuda Pancasila, a paramilitary youth organization and various local gangsters who watched and scalped tickets to American movies in their downtime. Anwar Congo is one such gangster/movie buff. that latter trait is the reason why filmmaker Jason Oppenheimer's offer is one he can't refuse. Yes, I slipped in a cinematic gangster joke right there. You kind of have to because this is pretty frightening and depressing stuff.

Oppenheimer doesn't just approach Congo about a documentary. He asked him to make his own movie anyway he wants about the murders he committed. By the way, Anwar never applies a number to how many he's killed, but we gather it's plenty. One person guesses it's about a thousand. With his right hand man Herman and the help of his friends, some of whom were also involved in the atrocities, Congo embarks on his own Hollywood-style production. It is a bizarre film starring himself as the hero and including musical sequences. We get to see a number of reenactments of just how Congo and his cronies went about the business of killing and even hear them philosophize about what they did. Most startlingly, we see them reenact the massacre of an entire village. It's flat out bone-chilling.

Even more horrifying than the events themselves are the attitudes toward what happened. These guys have been lifted up as heroes for butchering men, women, and children, regardless of whether or not there was any solid proof of being Communist. Of course, having proof would not have made it any better. At one point Anwar is warmly welcomed on a TV talk show and tossed softball questions by the host who is fully aware of his past. She actually speak of him and what he has done in glowing terms. The strange dichotomy is that people still fear them, Anwar and his friends, and their capabilities. These capabilities not only include murder, but rape as well. One guy speaks of how much pleasure he got raping teenage girls back in the day. And even now they are still gangsters. We see them blatantly shaking down local shop owners. Herman is inexplicably asked to run for office in one small town and immediately starts verbalizing ways he could use his position to extort more money than he already does.

About halfway through the movie, it becomes evident that Anwar is using the film he is making as a form of self therapy. He speaks of the nightmares that he has from time to time. Eventually, he comes to have serious misgivings about his past actions. He becomes almost human. He traces much of his anguish to a night when he capitated a man, an event he recounts for us in gruesome detail. This is in sharp contrast to his friend and fellow killer Adi Zulkary. Adi is completely cold about the things he's done and rationalizes them by believing he did nothing wrong. His proof is that he's never been punished.

If there is a short coming to The Act of Killing is that it is not concerned with educating the viewer on how this situation came to be back in the 60's or its effect on the world. It certainly had one. As for the how, it's implied the US government was complicit with these killings but it's an angle never pursued. Putting two and two together, we realize it happens during the era when America was actively fighting communism in Vietnam, but not as much as is said here. You may come away feeling you haven't learned much about this slice of history.

On the other hand, it is a movie that seeks to penetrate the hardened heart of its subject. How can anyone commit so many atrocities and remain unaffected? To get the answer our director has Anwar make a movie within the movie. It's an idea ripped from the pages of Shakespeare's Hamlet, as I was reminded while reading through the booklet that accompanies the DVD (written by executive producer Errol Morris). Oppenheimer's goal is similar to that of Hamlet. It is to provoke a telling reaction. As it says in Act 3, Scene 2 of the famous tragedy, "The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Our question is does the director accomplish this mission? If so, to what extent does he succeed? In any event The Act of Killing is a mortifying experience. I literally watched the whole thing in slack-jawed amazement.

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