“The Act of Killing” is revelatory and repulsive.
It provides a window into the blackened hearts and souls of men responsible for the murders of more than 1 million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in 1960s Indonesia.
Documentary co-director Joshua Oppenheimer convinced paramilitary leader Anwar Congo and his followers to re-enact the killings in the style of the American gangster movies they love.
That also meant soliciting strangers to serve as extras in this most cruel of exercises, particularly for a man who was barely 12 when his stepfather was killed and discarded under an oil drum. He and his grandfather removed the body and dug the grave. The boy was then “dumped in a shantytown at the edge of the jungle” where he had to teach himself to read and write.
“The Act of Killing” is utterly bizarre – just wait until the costumed musical finale set to “Born Free” and staged with a waterfall in the background – but with rare insight into how such death squad masterminds rationalize their actions.
They hanged, crushed, strangled, beheaded, stabbed, raped and ran over their victims; initially they beat some to death, but there was too much blood and the smell was too noxious. So they switched to using wire cut into the flesh of the throat.
“We were allowed to do it. And the proof is we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there’s nothing to be done about it,” says cold-blooded Adi Zulkadry.
Congo, on the other hand, may don a mustard-colored suit or a 10-gallon hat like his Western heroes (although oddly in vivid pink) and participate in the execution stagings but suffers nightmares.
“When I strangled people with wire I watched them die,” he tells Adi, who blithely suggests he see a doctor for “nerve vitamins.” Congo finally has a moment where he gets a glimpse of the loss of dignity and rush of fear and terror his victims felt and it makes him retch.
That is what we, as human beings, have been waiting for. It makes the crazy conceits by co-directors Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, in the service of justice long denied, worth it.