We’re in a dense, leafy jungle, surrounded by the pure spray and soft roar of a waterfall. An elderly man wearing a black, Moses-like robe, opens his arms wide and smiles benevolently. Pink-bikinied women sway gently. A row of young men come into view, their necks encircled by thin, ragged wire. One approaches the God-like figure: “Thank you, Anwar, for executing me and sending me to heaven. I thank you a thousand times for everything.”
Anwar Congo is a war criminal, and this is a scene from The Act of Killing. In this documentary by Danish director Joshua Oppenheimer, Anwar and his fellow murderers joyfully re-enact their crimes in the manner of Hollywood gangster films.
Following General Suharto’s coup in Indonesia in 1967, paramilitary groups labelled all his opponents ‘communists’ and embarked on a ruthless killing spree. One million ‘communists’ were ‘exterminated’; the gangsters responsible were never brought to account and are still in positions of political power.
“I found that the perpetrators were all eager to show us what they had done,” says Oppenheimer. “Killer after killer after killer boasted about and dramatised how they killed. And they had this love for American movies. These men were getting old and as they die their stories will die. I wanted to expose this for the survivors of the violence who still have not received justice for these mass killings. What is going on now that these perpetrators think it’s ok to boast?
“I said to the gangsters, you participated in one of the most mass killings in history. Your whole society has been shaped by it. Your lives have been shaped by it. I want to understand what it means to you.”
Part way through The Act of Killing, something completely unexpected happens and the world of the documentary and the world of the criminals’ film collide entirely with increasing surrealism. Rarely before on film have war criminals talked this openly about wanting atonement or feeling something approaching remorse. Seldom has hardcore brutality been presented with such unironic, Tarantino-like glee. The movie violence and real-life violence are indistinguishable. And just a few thoughts away from the politicised, sociopathic film fanaticism is the unstoppable psychological consequence of impunity. The personal effects of Anwar’s crimes are inescapable. On the one hand, he’s a dead-set sadist who idolises and animates Al Pacino’s cinema thugs; on the other, he is haunted by nightmares of his own making. Eventually, Anwar comes to play the victims in the dramatisations and depict his own beheading.
“The film becomes about how we become lost with Anwar in the process of his remembering his crimes and his own disappointments with life,” says Oppenheimer. “It was so easy to kill all those people. The fantasy scene was macabre and it was strange, but it was true. It was pure cinematic truth of murdering men lost in their fantasies.” This way, Oppenheimer avoids the noose of dry documentary cliche, melding journalistic expose with the aesthetics of The Godfather. The documentary is in turn dreamlike, frank and downright awful in its straight-on look at systemically enforced violence.
“I think making this film became a cinematic, psychic scar tissue for Anwar to process his crimes and his own pain. I have shown Anwar the film; it was intensely emotional for him. He was very disturbed but he didn’t say why because that would be tantamount to admitting his actions were wrong. The world celebrated what he did at the time and the government justified it ever since. He and I sat in silence for a long time after the film finished. And he eventually said, “yes, that was the film I knew we were making.”
BY LAUREN CARROLL HARRIS
What: The Act of Killing in Official Competition
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer