In Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary The Act of Killing, film becomes the medium for a bold historical reckoning—and in more ways than one. While the director travels to Indonesia to interview several of the individuals responsible for the mass murders of suspected communists following the country’s military coup in 1965, and to record the same culture of casual, near-fascist violence that exists in the country today, he enlists his subjects in a singular project. Because many of the men got their start working as petty gangsters enforcing movie-ticket sales, and because many of them modeled their behaviors on American movie stars such as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Oppenheimer offers them the chance to film their experiences, creating a movie of their own in an assortment of genres of their choosing.
Thus do the powers of film multiply as recreation breeds reflection and finally remorse—not to mention any number of bizarrely offbeat moments. Staging acts of murder and torture alongside strange musical numbers and random bits of western- and noir-tinged scenes, the subjects craft some moments of harrowing surrealism, the sequences of men slaughtering innocents, setting villages ablaze, and lopping off heads given a hallucinatory vividness by the alternating tones of smoky dread and wacked-out pageantry.
Although the decision to let largely unrepentant mass murderers tell their own stories is incredibly fraught with ethical dangers and, on the surface, seems like little more than a gimmick to prevent the project from becoming just another talking-head documentary, it actually plays a far more significant role in achieving Oppenheimer’s aims. Whatever the implications of the project for Indonesia (and at least one talk-show clip included in the film indicates that the film-within-a-film is an issue of some national significance), Oppenheimer always seems fully enough in control of his material to prevent the subjects from shaping the overall narrative in unsavory ways. Furthermore, the act of recreation proves to be the most effective means of bringing the perpetrators (and their country) face to face with a legacy that they not only haven’t confronted, but that, on the evidence of the film, haven’t even realized needed confronting in the first place.
What’s most shocking, then, about The Act of Killing is just how open the perpetrators are about their past actions and how, far from being punished from these acts, they’ve become something like national heroes, serving as role models for a frighteningly popular paramilitary group that some of them helped found. While a number of the participants talk about the importance of preserving history, most seem oblivious to the fact that this might require some actual reckoning with that history. The most unrepentant of the lot muse about the pleasures of raping 14-year-old girls or stir up their paramilitary underlings into expressions of anti-communist bloodlust; when the cameras start to roll, there’s little need for the men to even act.
This isn’t the case, however, for former death-squad leader Anwar Congo, who, after playing a victim in one film-within-a-film sequence, begins to mentally place himself in the position of his own victims and who becomes the increasing focal point of The Act of Killing’s final third. While others had tentatively raised the vaguest doubts about their own past activities, or at least the need to be careful with how they present these activities to the camera, Congo admits from the beginning his own difficulties in living with his genocidal past. He explains early in the movie how he took to drink, drugs, and dancing to escape his own conscience and how he often suffers nightmares.
But none of that prepares the viewer for the stunning breakdown Congo undergoes at the end of the film after he revisits the site of his crimes. While the experience of acting may have prepared him for this final reckoning with the part of himself he’d spent years avoiding, here the layers of artifice are stripped away. Nothing remains but a lone man spitting forth guttural cries of disgust that can’t be faked, can’t be acted—and a single camera to record it. After the high cinematic imagination of The Act of Killing’s flights of fancy, it’s this last bit of verité that redeems the project, if not the atrocities it forces its subjects to finally confront.