The Act of Killing is perhaps one of the most assaultive and abrasive documentaries on the nature of violence that, in order to achieve its goals, doesn’t cheaply place its audiences in the bad-faith position of being unwitting accomplices to the spectacle of carnage.
Instead, Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s movie invites audiences to reflect on the power of the film medium and its disturbing flexibility as a tool to alternately inform and to indoctrinate. If Chris Marker and Errol Morris chartered a jet to Argentina to film a self-reflective counterpart to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, only told from the point of view of refugee Nazi war criminals, that might begin to approach the sense of tonal confusion and transgressive experimentalism of Oppenheimer’s triumph. It has the omniscient execution (no pun intended) of a Wiseman work, and the gut-churning thrust of a snuff film.
Oppenheimer and Cynn, so I’ve been told by Sound Unseen’s Jim Brunzell, came to Indonesia to film what sounded like a far more recherché advocacy-doc project about inhumane conditions faced by plantation workers who were working to form a union. Because the women were so terrified of the association their society placed between unions and communism, the filmmakers found themselves indirectly coping with the aftermath of the nation’s 1965 genocide of communists, suspected communists and Chinese people. An estimated 1 million to 3 million people were killed, and the nation remains under the influence of the forces behind the massacre.
The Act of Killing sees Oppenheimer and Cynn (along with a third filmmaker simply called “anonymous,” a credit shared by at least half the movie’s crew members) inviting a number of the political assassins to create a filmed recreation/testament to their “achievement,” chief among them death squad godfather Anwar Congo, who claims to have personally killed in excess of 1,000 people. Congo — who got his start scalping movie tickets in front of a cinema — and his fellow killers envision an epic that spans multiple genres, from machismo-drenched westerns and gangster potboilers to candy-colored musicals. All the while, Oppenheimer and Cynn film them orchestrating their tribute to themselves, insisting that the movie should feel as real as possible.
“Reality” in the context of almost any documentary is of course a malleable concept, but The Act of Killing takes that precept to rarely-explored territory. Congo and the gang aren’t just forthcoming with the gruesome details of their exploits — early on, Congo proudly demonstrates a device he made for garroting his victims that also kept him at a safe distance — they’re downright boastful, an unsettling trait which they explain keeps their consciences clean and ensures the respect and obedience of the Indonesian people. They exhibit mystifying confidence when reflecting on their history of mass murder. They are killers as national heroes, and no moral relativism is allowed in to infect their sense of pride.
Oppenheimer and Cynn never frame Congo and company’s fantastical reenactments for easy mockery, no matter how disorienting they may seem, though they often give them enough rope to hang themselves with, at least so far as Western audiences are likely to approach the entire proceedings.
When one national representative visits the set on a day when they are filming a particularly brutal village massacre, and he cautions the “actors” not to let their simulated rage go over the top, you presume as an official he’s attempting to whitewash the reality of the country’s bloody purge. But, no, it turns out that he has no issue with the content of the scene. He’s only interested in image maintenance, in explaining the difference between viciousness and brutality to keep anyone from going “off script.”
The movie reveals so much of the mental discipline of its ersatz protagonists (more than a few have name-checked Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” and indeed, the movie is at turns monotonous and jaw-dropping), that when cracks start to form in Congo’s self-regard and he dwells on how he is haunted by the eyes he neglected to close after cutting his victims’ heads off, it seems apparent that Oppenheimer and Cynn have primed viewers not to trust him at his word, while still allowing them to contemplate their own limits for forgiveness and sympathy. Few films attempt anything so reckless and edifying, and The Act of Killing is a queasy, unforgettable achievement.
The Walker Art Center presents The Act of Killing in both its theatrical version (Wednesday night) and the longer director’s cut (Thursday night), with Joshua Oppenheimer in attendance. There will also be a master class with Oppenheimer on Saturday. The movie opens at the Lagoon Cinema on Friday.