It seems almost obscene for me to be categorizing The Act of Killing (2012, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer) as any kind of genre film, given that its subjects are men who committed mass murder with impunity in the 1966 Indonesian civil war, but the film itself invites the viewer to deal with the horror it's depicting through the lens of film. Its conceit is that the men involved recreate their atrocities on film. The result, as both the global project that is The Act of Killing and the scenes within authored by its subjects is a derangement that you might get if Abbas Kairostami, Alejandro Jodorowski, and John Waters had collaborated on a mondo documentary. This is a tough film to watch.
The central figure in The Act of Killing is one Anwar Congo, a very successful executioner in his day who claims to have personally killed over a thousand people with his own hands. His preferred method is a garrote, though he also employed the cudgel and the machete. The victims of Indonesia's 1966 civil war were "communists," a category encompassing intellectuals, anti-fascists, ethnic Chinese, and actual communists. Congo is a smiling, grandfatherly man who resembles Nelson Mandela (though one person in the film suggests that he looks like Idi Amin Dada. The man is so ordinary that it's shocking. His right hand man, Herman Koto, is more colorful, and during the recreations of their exploits--occasionally filmed like a Bollywood musical (no joke)--he appears frequently in drag. None of this is funny in context because these men, and the enthusiasm for their history, are utterly terrifying.
The film attempts to put all of this in context, filming at paramilitary rallies (where the vice president of Indonesia participates in a recreation of the massacre of a village, though cautioning his followers to refrain from seeming too enthusiastic and bloodthirsty while praising the rage they exhibit). None of these people questions the necessity of exterminating communists. The press, in the person of a newspaper publisher whose offices were used to interrogate communists before they were murdered, viewed their job as propagandists. The portrait of fascism victorious in this film is a cautionary tale for the world. One of the executioners is candid about the whole thing: the winners determine what is a war crime, what constitutes human rights. He dismisses the Geneva Convention and speculates on replacing it with the Jakarta Convention. Perhaps even more horrifying is the confession of another killer, relaxing between takes of the massacre recreation, of how satisfying it was to be able to rape girls at will. His favorite was a 14 year old. "This is going to be hell for you but heaven for me," he recalls telling her. The massacre scene suggests that there is something profoundly wrong with these people, because the extras, playing the women and children who are victims, are visibly shaken by the parts they play. One little girl can't stop crying after her "cut" is called on her scene. The extras still have their humanity. The killers? Who can say? Evil as a way of life becomes banal, I suppose.
The whole "making a movie about their past" thing acts as an ersatz truth commission in a country where the fascists won and never left power. As such, the participants are more forthcoming than they might be because they know that there won't ever be any reprisals. They view it as a lark and the film segments that they make resemble genre films. One scene is an interrogation done in the style of film noir. Another resembles an Italian cannibal film. Watching these men geek out over special effects make-up is like eavesdropping at a Fangoria make-up seminar. These guys are movie fans and they love the process. One baroque scene finds Herman, done up like Divine, eating the liver of the decapitated Anawar. Indonesia has a tradition of weirdo cinema, and these film projects are firmly in those traditions. This is a metacinematic film if ever there was one.
Anwar is self-aware enough, at least, to realize that his lack of contrition might not play well internationally, and toward the end of the film, he expresses remorse in three scenes. In the first, the interrogation scene, performing the victim of his own crimes visibly upsets him. In the second, he shows that scene to his grand-kids, and tells Oppenheimer that he felt what his victims felt in those scenes. Oppenheimer rightly tells him that he didn't, because he knew that it was only a movie and that his victims were NOT in a movie and were going to be killed. "Have I sinned?" he asks Oppenheimer, almost rhetorically. The last scene--the last scene in the film--finds Anwar demonstrating one of his killing grounds and throwing up as he contemplates what he did. Is this an act? Here's the thing: the film has already visited this area with Anwar gleefully demonstrating the "humanity" of his murder techniques. Further, given the way the film is assembled, the last scene was surely shot before any of the material that would cause Anwar to contemplate his crimes--he's wearing the same suit he was wearing in the early scenes. None of this is trustworthy. Oppenheimer underlines this with the film's last shot, cribbed from the final shot of The Searchers. Anwar earlier mentioned his admiration for American tough guy actors like John Wayne, so this shot puts everything into context as performance.
The unease generated by all of this is palpable. This is a film that doesn't include one single solitary piece of archive footage of the real crimes, and it still gut-punches the audience. There are real monsters in the world, and they have smiling faces.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 7
First Time Viewings: 6
Around the Web:
Bob Trumbull over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind joins us again this year with his first summary post of his October viewings. His focus on classics like the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray adds some class to the whole enterprise.
Dr. AC at Horror 101 is going for the classics, too, with a viewing of James Whale's nutty The Old Dark House.
Vitus Werdegast at The Celluloid Dreamer goes for seventies gothic with The Haunting of Julia.
Jose at The Grim Reader joins us again with an ode to the werewolf.