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The Act of Killing

by Kevin Langson
Contributor
Friday Aug 9, 2013
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A scene from ’The Act of Killing’
A scene from ’The Act of Killing’  

A mass murder musical documentary? Well, if renegade queer filmmaker Rosa Van Praunheim can make a satirical musical about AIDS in the ’80s, then there’s no reason documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer can’t pull off a consideration of slaughter and its implications in an absurdity-drenched and irony-tinged probing.

For this project, titled "The Act of Killing," the filmmakers somehow earned the trust of some of the world’s most ruthless unpunished killers, members of an Indonesian paramilitary that wiped out Communists in the mid 1960s. The film works because these men are still proud, in fact boastful and ever-ready to defend their actions and stir up some more anti-Commie fervor. It also works because there is just enough variation between them to lend complexity and nuance.

This film is a remarkably digestible portrait of brutal men, like medicine disguised in sugary coating.

Anwar Congo was one of the most feared death squad leaders. To look at him, one would think him an ordinary aging man; he seems relatively charismatic and sensitive (some of the others come off as brutes through and through). In the beginning he speaks very matter-of-factly about his methods of killing, smiling as he demonstrates, for example, the efficiency with which captives can be killed by way of slicing their necks with wire. He seems at ease and amused in explicating it all to the camera. However, as the film unwinds, we learn of his recurring nightmares (a confidante suggests this means he has a weak mind, a simple physiological problem that can be treated), and he offers intimations of remorse. The remorse is nowhere as forthright as his pride, but there is an inner conflict that a film can only hope to glimpse. The glimpse is powerful enough, and it is much-desired in an ethos that is otherwise overwhelmingly celebratory, puerile, bloodthirsty to eternity.

The overall effect that this film had was to leave me utterly abject regarding the state of humanity. It sounds like a melodramatic response, but I can’t recall ever feeling so profoundly angry, frustrated, and repulsed by the protagonists of a documentary. Oppenheimer is quite adept at being diplomatic with them, while still pressing those difficult questions. Just as important, the film made me feel heartened about the state of the documentary form. This is a daring and truly inventive rendering of the aftermath of large scale tragedy: Women in gowns singing a pop tune outside of a giant gaping fish structure (kudos to one of the most memorable leitmotifs of recent history); killers who break into whistling and song while re-enacting their crimes; a porcine gangster in elaborate drag, seething with anti-Commie vehemence. It sometimes seems unreal, but then moments such as the reunited killers pausing their filmmaking endeavors to discuss their past deeds bring us back to reality.

At one point, they speak of the "soap opera" that is politics: Citizens have to be bribed to attend rallies, and money-driven politicians smile wide while thinking how ludicrous the game is. It would be fascinating, as well, to hear from the average Indonesian, those who have lived in fear and those who have been brought up in denial of what occurred. But that’s another film. This film is a remarkably digestible portrait of brutal men; like medicine disguised in sugary coating, it tells bits of history like the Pancasila Youth paramilitary’s tormenting of the population while entertaining with scenes in which silliness and sadism co-mingle in the laughable interactions of the inveterated killers.

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