The Act of Killing

Released:  2012

Cast:  Anwar Congo, Herman Koto

Oscar Nominations:  Best Documentary, Features (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sorensen)

SUMMARY:  This film is a documentary focusing on some of the people involved in the Indonesian killings of 1965 and 1966.  In 1965, Suharto overthrew the President of Indonesia, Sukarno, and introduced a military regime.  Almost immediately, the government began going after anyone it perceived to oppose them, primarily communists, leftists and ethnic Chinese.  To carry out the killings the government used gangsters and other criminals; as the same government is still in power in Indonesia, these men are now seen as heroes and patriots.  This film follows two of them, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, and asks them to reenact and explain their killings.  Congo was a ticket scalper at a movie theater in 1965, and along with Adi Zulkadry, eventually rose to the head of the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra.  He is believed to have killed around 1000 people by himself; he also took money from ethnic Chinese in return for not killing them.  In 2012, Congo is a national hero, particularly to the youth paramilitary group, Pemuda Pancasila, that was created out of the former death squads, and now has over 3 million members.  Pancasila is incredibly powerful, and openly admits to supporting government corruption and engaging in illegal activities.  At the beginning of the film, Congo and Koto are asked to reenact the killings as they choose.  They start by recruiting people in the street as actors, and play out a raid on a house.  The men, joined by several others who participated in the killings, develop grander and grander ideas for this reenactment, until they are filming a movie in a studio, complete with special effects makeup and professional equipment.

The scenes that they produce are interspersed with interviews the various men give, though the reenacted scenes eventually take over.  The men consider the reenactments good fun when they begin, and try to integrate a variety of movie genres — for humor, they have the overweight Koto play a woman.  They even get Zulkadry to return and take part in the film.  However, Zulkadry seems to have developed a different attitude than Congo and Koto.  He questions the reason behind the killings, and empathizes with the victim’s families.  He does not regret his actions, and unlike Congo, does not have nightmares about them.  When they are filming the movie, though, he questions the wisdom of making such a film.  For many years, the killers have claimed that the Communists were cruel, but Zulkadry points out that the film will show that this was a lie, and that the killers really were the cruel ones.  These same concerns are voiced in a scene where the death squad (played by Pancasila members) is shown annihilating a village.  Congo is an enthusiastic participant in the filming until he plays a victim in one of the scenes.  His character is killed in the scene, using the very method of execution that Congo preferred.  After one take, Congo announces that he will not do the scene over, and says that he now knows what the victims were feeling.  The director reminds him that the victims were even more scared, because they were not acting.  This seems to deeply affect Congo, as does the viewing of the scene.  He questions his actions and the motivation behind them; when he goes back to the place where he killed many victims (which he had previously visited, with no ill effects) he gets violently sick.

MY TAKE:  The horrifying thing about this movie is that the grandfatherly old men that are shown are mass murders — and they seem pretty happy about it.  It’s hard to imagine these men killing anybody, as they seem pretty gentle and peaceful, but they very willingly talk about what they did, how they did it, and how many people they did it to.  Perhaps more terribly, the country celebrates them for their actions.  With the exception of some of the reenacted scenes, the movie is surprisingly un-gory, probably because no actual footage from the killings is used (if it even exists).  Actually, for such a gruesome topic, the movie gets really boring in the middle, when the men are just talking about filming their scenes and sitting around.  Things do pick up at the end, when the weight of what he has done finally seems to hit Anwar Congo.  There is sort of a redemptive feeling to this, as you see Congo start to realize the enormity and seriousness of his crimes — he starts to see himself as most other people (outside Indonesia) do.  I still think the movie is over-long, and it wasn’t as interesting as I expected it to be.  However, it does bring to light a massacre/genocide which most people are not of aware of.

RATING:  Not as compelling as it should be.

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