What would the Nazi concentration camp workers be doing forty years after World War II if Germany had won the war? They certainly wouldn't have been on trial for war crimes, and one can imagine them proudly occupying a place of prominence in modern Nazi society. That's sort of what The Act of Killing is like.
This is not an easy film to watch, and it's even harder to comprehend. A documentary filmmaker went to Indonesia wanting to interview the families of victims murdered in the 1965-66 Indonesia killings. But due to the oppressive political climate in Indonesia, he found few people willing to speak about their experiences on camera. So he shifts his focus to the men who actually committed the murders, who paradoxically are able to discuss their crimes openly. This ends up making for a much more bizarre yet compelling story.
The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo and his compatriots, who not only acknowledge their role in the murder of nearly one million people back in the 1960s, but are proud of it. With the help of the documentary filmmaker and crew, they create short movies reenacting their crimes in a variety of film genres.
With that in mind, can we just briefly talk about the gall it took for these guys to go into a local community known for having many friends and family members murdered and asking them to take part in a reenactment of the killings by the men who actually committed the murders? How do you sleep at night?
It's shocking how these men are able to absorb all of the atrocities that they committed without any kind of moral crisis. Occasionally they acknowledge that they try not to think about it, or that they have bad dreams about the things they've done, but most of the time they just seemed proud. If there's any guilt over the murders committed, it is buried down deep.
Case in point: I present to you a man doing the Cha Cha on the same spot where he killed hundreds of people 40 years earlier.
It's hard to ignore the fact that these guys talk about their time in the death squads like they're reminiscing about the good old days when they had a garage band, before Jeff got a 9-5 job and Steve married that witch Janine.
Adi Zulkadry is introduced halfway through the film. He's another executioner, like Congo, but he has a touch of what comes alarmingly close to intelligence. Then he begins to speak fondly of that one time when he killed his Chinese girlfriend's father, and I start to wonder if I have somehow slipped into some strange alternate dimension where casually discussing this sort of thing makes sense.
In a lot of ways, he is the most dangerous character in the film, because he's clever. He seems fully aware of the brutality of his actions and knows that if things went differently, he probably would have been charged with war crimes. But he has seemingly no guilt about his actions. He stands by the necessity of the murders, secure in the knowledge that the victors get to decide what is right or wrong.
At one point in the film, there is an actor who tells the story of his stepfather, in the interest of providing input for the film the gangsters are making about their exploits. He describes in some detail how his Chinese stepfather was taken in the middle of the night, murdered, and hidden underneath an oil drum.
The man tells this story lightly, even laughing at parts, each word specifically chosen to downplay the tragedy so as not to offend the gangsters. They listen politely, then tell him that his story is too complicated to be featured in their film.
And in this moment, it becomes excruciatingly clear that because the men responsible for these crimes are still in positions of power, the victims were never allowed catharsis. They could not be angry, or mourn, or even move past it - the tragedy of their lives was forced to stay buried.
None of the death squads have been brought to justice for the things that they did. The perceived need for the gangsters within the local political infrastructure prevents them from facing any consequences. How can politicians punish them when they themselves are still reliant on gangsters? The entire system of corruption stands in the way of any real healing taking place.
The credits of The Act of Killing are a perfect illustration of how afraid people still are about speaking out, or even being perceived as speaking out. This film had a large local crew, but when it came to getting credit for their work, they overwhelming chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
The ending of the film is tied in a neat little bow, where Congo's past becomes abhorrent to him, to the point where he is literally gagging while standing at the site of the murders. And while part of me wants to believe that he really saw the error of his ways, it feels a little too convenient. Congo is not a stupid man, and while I imagine that he has regrets somewhere deep down in a place he doesn't talk about at parties, I think this violent rejection of his actions was more for the cameras than anything else.
There may come a day, when I've fully recovered from the sheer insanity that was this movie, I will sit down and watch its sequel, The Look of Silence. It is not this day.