I knew a guy in high school who, should you be driving in a car with him, would gleefully point out the various locations and areas in which he had made it with his girlfriend. “We did it there,” he’d say. “Oh, yeah, couple of times over there.” These would be office buildings and retail stores. “All the time, there,” he’d go on. We never believed him (a suspicion confirmed when he and his girlfriend broke up and she promptly told us they hadn’t made it anywhere at all), but the pride in which he shared his exploits was sort of infectious, that the audacity of him daring us to believe him had a sort of charm, so that even though we knew it was bogus (and strictly speaking, offensive), it was like a kid bragging about his video game exploits. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true; what mattered is not even that he wanted it to be, but that he would go to such lengths to impress us.
Hauntingly, it was this that I thought of during a section of The Act of Killing (2013), a bizarre and terrifying documentary about the mid-1960s Indonesian purge of the Chinese and Indonesian communists, told by the perpetrators of the mass killings. There’s a moment in which some of the men, who helped in the murder of more than a million people, are driving in a convertible through a crowded street, pointing to areas where they held executions. “We killed people there,” one says with pride, the same kind of pride my friend displayed. “We killed so many people there, we called it the Office of Blood.” There was the same kind of childlike enthusiasm, only it wasn’t charming and it certainly wasn’t infectious. Also, the difference is, I believe them.
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous third director, The Act of Killing invites you into this strange world in which these killers, self-described gangsters influenced by American movies, are the toast of Indonesian society and they happily re-create their most infamous crimes for Oppenheimer’s camera. One, smiling,shows how to use a piano wire to decapitate a victim, who is also smiling. A pair don grisly makeup to re-create an interrogation. The scenes are cruel and unusual and become surreal because they are performed by men who act as if they are relating the story of the time they caught the big one.
The conceit of the filmmakers is to ask these unabashed murderers to re-create their crimes in the style of the movies that influenced them, so we are “treated” to war crimes presented as Westerns, hit jobs shown as musicals and killings as gangster films. Does this sound distasteful? It’s certainly that, but it’s also fascinating, early on because of the reenactors’ strange pride and willful resistance to empathy for their victims, later because of the richness of these lives wasted in the act of killing, and throughout by the vast differences between this world and my own.
The movie focuses mainly on Anwar Congo, who personally killed more than 1,000 ethnic Chinese and assumed communists. He is older now but is no less reticent to talk about the things he did. His career began selling movie theater tickets on the black market then he was promoted to leading the most feared death squad in the area, where he was very good at his job. Later he would help create the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, an extremely right-wing group that’s like the Hitler Youth but with more colorful uniforms. Congo and his cohorts don’t seem particularly political; they discuss the communists not as the enemy on a philosophical level but just as part of the job, the way an exterminator might discuss pill bugs. They completely acknowledge that the government’s war on communism was propaganda and did little but make a bogey man out of a large section of the population, and their cynicism is at such a level that they don’t care; they were just happy to be on the winning side.
The re-creations are crude genre imitations in which the performers grin and giggle throughout like children being asked to reenact their day at school. These scenes have a hypnotic surrealistic quality; much of the movie is like that, as if it were a documentary about people on a different planet. The Act of Killing makes a brief detour to focus on Herman Koto, a cross-dressing cohort of Congo’s who is running for public office. He’s corrupt and wants the position to better his opportunities to extort money, but the system is more corrupt. Rally-goers are paid, votes are bought, no one in the populace seems to care about any issue other than what certain politicians can give to them in the moment, and Koto can’t outspend the others. Koto walks through a slum handing out cards to remind people to vote. “This is it?” they all ask. “Where are the gifts?” Watching this place, where everyone’s votes are for sale and politicians run against each other on the basis of who has killed the most communists, is a nightmare. The newspaper editor is happy to share that he did all he could to paint communism as evil, happily throwing out stories and making up quotes to help the process. Every aspect seems twisted, deranged and severed from human decency so that when the murderers don’t seem remorseful, you can see why. They live in a world turned upside down.
“War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition,” explains Adi Zulkadry, Congo’s good friend from the good old days. He seems to have a better grasp of the evil he has wrought than Congo but is no more apologetic. When we first meet him, he wears a T-shirt that reads “Apathetic.” What came out of The Act of Killing that I didn’t expect is the amount of sadness I felt for the perpetrators. By no means does the film argue they should be forgiven, but when they talk about their lives and the things they enjoy and enjoyed, it’s hard not to wonder, “Where did things go wrong for you?” How did Congo, who sentimentally shares a photo of himself and a youth on a bowling team, become someone who could kill 1,000 people and casually dismiss it? That leap can’t be easy, but perhaps it gets easier.
This is a profoundly moving movie, bizarre and strange but haunting and powerful. Two of its executive producers are Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two documentarians who have the corner on the bizarre and strange but haunting and powerful market, and this is right up their alley. I often feel that the value of a human life has never been lower. I see that among the people in The Act of Killing it’s lower still, yet the movie acts as a strange kind of therapy, putting senselessness on trial by the enactors of that senselessness. It’s fascinating and terrible.