In the 1960s, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anyone siding with the government was branded a ‘communist’ and was killed. Anwar Congo was one of the men responsible for the killings and, along with some of his cohorts, re-enacts the killings as dramatic works of fiction
I don’t think it’s too much of a sweeping statement to say that everyone’s aware of the events of World War II and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews. But I’d put a good deal of money on not many people knowing that virtually the same thing happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. I certainly didn’t.
There’s no two ways about it; The Act of Killing is an incredibly difficult watch. I can’t think of any other film that has literally left me open mouthed and dumbfounded at what I was watching, and much of that is because of the way director Joshua Oppenheimer (you can read an excellent interview with Oppenheimer here) has chosen to go about telling the story.
Getting Anwar Congo and his sycophantic sidekick Herman Koto to re-enact the killings on film and create dramatised versions of the events is a work of absolute genius and serves only to further highlight their atrocities. They create scenes covering various film genres including gangster films, westerns and musicals, each twisted and disturbing to watch as they laugh and joke their way around the subject. Oppenheimer doesn’t need an agenda here; just letting it play out as it does tells its own story.
The casual, almost banal, way they talk about the killings is really quite startling. They proudly hide nothing and openly discuss killing hundreds and thousands of people as if swatting a troublesome fly. For example, when watching one of the scenes back in which he demonstrates his favourite method of killing, Anwar becomes visibly uncomfortable. However, we soon learn that it’s because he realises he’s wearing the wrong kind of trousers on the film to those he wore in real life. That’s the level of casual sadism we’re dealing with, and that’s just one example of many.
There has been some criticism levelled at the documentary in that it doesn’t address the role the US played in the killings, effectively supporting what was happening at the time. However, Oppenheimer has simply chosen a different route to take with the film and that’s his prerogative. It would simply be impossible to cover this topic from every angle, and those wanting more details should take it upon themselves to do some research.
This is by no means a comprehensive account of the killings but is more than enough to provide a truly horrifying snapshot into events that have somehow gone largely unreported. The Act of Killing is eye-opening, shocking and most of all important.
- Incredibly inventive way of telling the story
- An important historical event gaining wider coverage
- Illuminating interviews with the subjects
- Some slight production value issues