‘The Act of Killing’ is a brutal investigation into the genocide which took place in 1965 Indonesia after President Sukarno was overthrown to be replaced by Suharto. Those who refused to conform to the new political agenda were branded communists and massacred. Director Joshua Oppenheimer pushes the boundaries of factual filmmaking asking questions of gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry who killed masses of innocent people without conscience or consequence and are heralded as national heroes today.
Initially, the aim was to create a piece in which he would speak to the ancestors of the so-called communist victims but the government put paid to his plans. Instead, he speaks to the men who carried out the killing spree, who horrifically speak openly and proudly, talking through their methods of murder in grim detail. They continually attempt to justify their actions, translating the term gangster as ‘free man’ twisting the semantics to give a reason behind what they have done. This idea is repeated with a warped version of the song ‘Born Free’ used later over a waterfall backdrop with celebrated figures singing along gleefully, where we also see a man representing the spirit of the victims, removing the wire used to choke him to death and thanking Congo for killing him and sending him to heaven, placing a medal around his neck to glorify his actions.
Oppenheimer asks the pair to re-enact their callous acts and encourages them to make a film about it and they duly accept this proposition. Anwar shows no remorse initially, boasting about his idea to strangle victims with wire to prevent the heavy bloodshed of his past approach. He is now a leader in a right wing organisation Permuda Pancasila, full of powerful key figures from the death squads who have shockingly gone unpunished. Instead of the film becoming a history lesson, it offers background but decides to focus its energy on the psyches of Congo and Zulkadry to explore them as individuals searching for signs of mercy and forcing them to recognise the horror of their pasts.
Werner Herzog took an executive producer role and showered the piece heavily with praise. He said “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is certainly brave filmmaking, directed with the unfaltering sense of exploration of Michael Moore or Louis Theroux, tackling the harrowing subject head on. It is not for the fainthearted, and makes for uncomfortable viewing nearly all the way through, but is handled expertly and definitely sheds light on the struggles of an extremely troubled nation.