The history books are written by those who hold power, and whether the power was achieved through mass murder is irrelevant. In 1965, a purge was conducted in Indonesia. Over 1,000,000 suspected Communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese were tortured and murdered by paramilitary forces and hired gangsters--or as they liked to be called, “Movie Theater Gangsters.” Idolizing American cinema and the style of John Wayne and Marlon Brando, street hoodlums would rob, maim, and murder with impunity as long as the victim was a Communist. One such gangster was Anwar Congo. Today, he is recognized as a national hero. He has never faced any trial for his crimes nor as he ever had to answer for them. In an effort to try and understand how people who have committed such atrocities could boast about them, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer asked Anwar to make a movie about the rape, the torture, and the beheadings..
The Act of Killing is one of those films that is emotionally taxing because of the power it possesses. Anwar and his fellow war criminals show the audience in detail how they would strangle people with wire which became the preferred method of murder after the beatings were getting too “messy” and “hard to clean up.” Almost immediately after showing us how he perfected the wire strangulation, Anwar begins talking about how he is a good dancer eventually doing the Cha-Cha on the same spot he tortured and killed people. The question one inevitably asks oneself is “How?” How can a person act in such an amoral fashion? The answer is simpler than one may think: disconnection.
At one point in the film, Anwar’s friend and accomplice Adi Zulkadry--who expresses no guilt and and dares the camera to be taken to The Hague--informs informs Anwar and the crew that if they conduct a scene in a such manner, they will look like the cruel ones as opposed to the Communists. He goes so far as telling Anwar that it is too intense, making it unwatchable. Adi boasts about what he does but never expressing guilt. He distances himself it by telling himself that he won. This is opposed to Anwar who attempts to distance himself by acting as if what he did was like something in a movie He visualizes and remembers interrogations and torture as if they were out of a 1940s noir film--fedoras and all. But he is not a monster; he is a human being. To call him a monster would be dismissive and place a veil over our eyes in the same manner these men do in order to go about their daily lives. This is the point of The Act of Killing. It forces us to watch genocide through the imagination of those who committed it, and by extension, a peak into their souls. The camera lens does not lie, and seeing yourself through that is more powerful than a mirror. What we as the audience begin to see in Anwar is humanity where we want to say none exists. We do not want to admit to ourselves that seemingly normal people are capable of the greatest of evils. We do not want to admit to ourselves that mass murder is a distinctly human trait. The Act of Killing takes two hours to watch, days to get over, and should never be forgotten.
The Act of Killing is now playing in select theaters.
Runtime: 115 min