In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, ultra-violent Alex is forced to undergo an extreme experiment in which he would spend days watching films depicting one violent scene after another, without a storyline to give it meaning (and excuse). To make sure he did not look away when tired, he was strapped to the seat with a straight jacked and his eyelids were kept open with a special device. He could not even blink (there was a nurse with eye drops to help him survive). At the end of the experiment, Alex developed an aversion to violence, not by his own will after a moral transformation that comes from responsibility, but as a mechanical response his body would trigger. What Anthony Burgess (the writer of the novel on which Kubrick’s masterpiece is based on) was saying is that a society that mechanizes our responses, takes away our human quality to choose between right and wrong, to learn through cerebral activity. Of course, if we take a look at the history of mankind, all the wars, genocides and current injustices would always keep the “Ludovico Experiment” (which seems like a less invasive lobotomy) at hand as a possibility, while humanists fight against it. Nevertheless, the methods to fight crimes like this keep being life incarceration or the death penalty in some parts of the world.
Joshua Oppenheimer had a very scary idea. An idea that would put him right in front of a monster, and test his belief in humanity, and in doing so, test our very own. He would convince some of the perpetrators of the Indonesian’s 1965-66 murderous campaign to get rid of “communists”, to be filmed re-enacting some of the killings and making a movie with the results. As in “Argo” the idea of making a movie always sounds like a fantasy, where people see themselves as larger than life “Stars” from another reality. This idea was not in the director’s from the beginning. He was actually shooting a film in Indonesia where the victims would tell their story, but numerous interruptions by the police made him fear not only for his life and the crew’s, but also the victims who had already escaped the genocide. When he saw no resistance from the authorities to undertake the assignment and being in front of the camera, he understood this was going to be a film of other kind, not talking about criminals, victims and survival, but about how people see themselves and how they cope with life after a tragedy inflicted that they don’t recognize as such.
Anwar Congo is one of the government’s hired “gangsters” that agreed to Oppenheimer’s request. He would be able to tell his story by emulating all those Hollywood movies and at the same time celebrate the Dictatorship’s rise to power with pride. Aided by some of his partners in crime, he is always ready to show where, when and how he committed the crimes. He tells of each technique of killing with enthusiastic curiosity, doing a dance routine in one scene as he shows his complete detachment from his acts, seeing them as heroic, or engaging in a fantasy where he is given a medal.
Throughout the film, Oppenheimer’s team gives these people all the means to recreate their acts, using costumes to heighten their sense of the fantastic and make up to take them into a reality they see in abstract form. There’s a choreography under a beautiful waterfall, with pretty women in dreamy dresses, or right by the mouth of an abandoned building in the shape of a big fish, where they dance while they are allowed and when they are told. Life in Indonesia seems to follow that premise, with a powerful government that is ready to impose death on individuals.
But as the experiment progresses, it seems to influence Anwar in an unexpected way. He confesses of having nightmares that he believes are linked with the killings. Many of the violent scenes break in chaos, and as the director shouts, “CUT” the crying children can’t seem to separate fiction from actual horror. During the last reenactment, Anwar has a sudden breakdown and is unable to move, all covered in fake blood. He does not feel guilty or responsible until he sees it played back at him on a TV screen, connecting with the horror in a physical way, and, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”, physiologically reacts to the acts he has committed. Still no remorse, but he can’t physically bear being in the same place where he killed so many people.
Oppenheimer has created a film of intense repercussions. It confronts us with the evil nature in humanity and the twisted sense of fantasy that a reenactment poses, especially when depicted in a movie. In the eternal question of what is more effective, a fiction or a documentary, The Act Of Killing brings both into the equation and depicts reality in a naked light.
As a curious fact, experienced documentary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris helped executive produce the film, knowing the impact of its thematic and style would catch worldwide attention. The rest of the final credits show most of the production team as "Anonymous" in an effort to keep them safe from any life-threatening retaliation. If we take this, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's "This Is Not A Film" in which we attend the house arrest of Jafar Panahi before facing incarceration in Iran, and even American films like "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty", we can infer that, contrary to recent belief, movies matter more than ever.