The Act of Killing
"The Act of Killing" is a revolutionary attempt to illuminate hearts of darkness.
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer asked Indonesian death squad executioners to reenact their 1965 mass murders of over one million ethnic Chinese "communists." Using the medium of film was appropriate for these paramilitary members and self-proclaimed gangsters ("which means ’free men,’ " they repeat mantra-like) as they say their style of torture and execution was based on Brando, Pacino and John Wayne movies. "Or even worse than those films," they proudly share.
When American cinema was banned in their country, these men could no longer scalp tickets and so became murderers for hire. Anwar Congo and Herman Koto return to their killing sites (one is a rooftop of a clothing warehouse) to explain how garroting with wire was cheap and minimized blood clean up, although they advise to not wear white and instead to don thick jeans for such "interrogations."
The amateur directors hire local men, women and children to play villagers raped, slaughtered and burned out of their homes. Most actors, especially the children, can’t stop crying after "cut" is yelled. The killers, who can no longer be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations in what is characterized as a deeply corrupt country, sometimes play their victims.
Chubby, uneducated Koto loves dressing in drag for highly choreographed production numbers in which his victims thank their executioners for sending them to heaven. Congo is the only murderer who eventually shares a modicum of regret as he replays his nightmares for the camera. He blames his troubled sleep on one image he couldn’t shake after he beheaded a man.
"I am always gazed at by those eyes I didn’t close," he said.
This Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Best Documentary set contains the theatrical and director’s cut versions, plus an interview with producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who reflect on these men, still in power today. Morris said, "They were asked to repeat crimes on film, which they did happily. Emphasis is on happy. How can you commit a crime and pay no penalty? What does that say about them? About us?"
Herzog appreciates this new type of documentary. "Just because something is fact-based doesn’t mean it’s the truth. We’re not just reading a phone book here." Morris added that "documentaries aren’t adult education, but an art form for communicating about the real world. They’re ’journalism plus.’" And this one is likely the most audacious, most brutal, most necessary film you will ever see.
Both filmmakers observe that the last scene, where Congo visits his killing roof one more time, is inherently ambiguous, and they both wonder "is it performance or is it real?" Morris says he thinks Oppenheimer believes we learn from this experience.
But, Morris says, "I think we learn nothing."
"The Act of Killing"