2013 Academy Awards, 86th Annual Academy Awards, Adi Zulkrady, Anwar Congo, atrocities, Best Feature Documentary nominee, cinema, death squads, documentaries, documentary, Errol Morris, film reviews, films, gangsters, genocide, Herman Koto, Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer, junta, mass killings, military dictatorship, Movies, murder, Oscar nominee, Pancasila Youth, paramilitary groups, snubbed at the Oscars, Syamsul Arifin, The Act of Killing, Top Films of 2013, torture, Werner Herzog
Very rarely, if ever, would I call any film “required” viewing. Humanity is just too fundamentally diverse to ever see eye-to-eye on issues like housing, health care, religion, government, child care and equitable living wages, so asking everyone to agree on entertainment seems like a pretty silly pursuit. I think that Dawn of the Dead is one of the most amazing films ever created: if you don’t like horror movies, the conversation is over. Some people listen to EDM and hear the new noise of a generation: others might hear a modem connecting. There are masses of people who swear that The New Girl is funny, while I agree to respect their opinions. At the end of the day, it really is all just a matter of taste and perspective: like what you want to like, watch you want to watch. In a world where everything is essential, nothing can truly be essential.
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the Indonesian killing fields, is required viewing. I say this with no hyperbole whatsoever and with full acknowledgement that it completely contradicts my earlier statement. Up until now, for one reason or another, I had never seen a film that I felt needed to be seen by everyone. I’ve seen plenty of films that I felt all film fans or film students or music fans or (insert favorite niche here) fans needed to see but never a film that all humanity needed to see. The Act of Killing, however, is that film. This should be given away to everyone (Alamo Drafthouse, the doc’s distributor, already set up ways for the film to be freely viewed and screened in Indonesia, where it’s also been banned), taught in school curriculum and made a part of international dialogue. Otherwise, there is the very real risk that the atrocities portrayed within the film will be forgotten by the world at large, something which must be prevented at all costs. There is a lesson for the whole world to learn here, a terrible lesson that very few will want to hear.
In the mid-1960’s, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, resulting in a brutal junta that ruled by fear, violence and the trumped-up threat of “Communism” sweeping into the area. Using local gangsters and paramilitary units, the military rounded up, tortured and murdered any and all opposition/undesirables, including union members, farmers, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese. Within a year, these massacres had claimed the lives of over one million Indonesians. To this day, almost 50 years later, the military is still in power and the men responsible for all of the killing are still extolled as national heroes and civic leaders. Imagine a case where Hitler grew old and was allowed to retire to a quaint, rural Polish village, a village where he was routinely celebrated as not only a hero but as a kindly, grandfatherly gentleman. This, in a nutshell, is the situation in Indonesia.
When Oppenheimer and his courageous crew traveled to Indonesia, they had the great fortune to find two of the most notorious – and most celebrated – local gangsters: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto. Not only were Congo and Koto unrepentant regarding their past crimes: they were openly proud and had nothing but fond memories of the murders. Under the guise of allowing Congo and Koto to further their own propagandist notions, the filmmakers offered the two men the opportunity to film their best “activities” using the mannerisms and styles of the American films that they love so much: musicals, gangsters pics, film noir, etc. At first, the two men are overjoyed at this chance to fully portray and laud their “heroic” activities, offering future generations the chance to learn from their initiative. Along the way, however, something quite surprising happens: when presented with the never-ending tidal wave of his past atrocities, crimes which have gone not only unpunished by celebrated, Anwar Congo begins to crack. By the time the film is over, this smirking charlatan, this two-bit street thug turned defacto robber-baron, will lose the only thing that could ever truly matter to him: his own sense of self-worth.
The Act of Killing is, for lack of a better word, crushing. There are few words that can accurately describe just how powerful, how unbearably nihilistic, the film is. In one scene, Koto moves through a slum neighborhood and attempts to enlist the services of the locals to play the part of “Communists” in their staged production. The locals agree (what else could they possibly do?) and even participate somewhat enthusiastically (if rather confused) but they are still participating in the re-enactment of things that happened to them as directed by the men who originally committed the acts. It’s akin to forcing a rape victim to reenact the crime for the sole enjoyment of the perpetrator. At another point, one of Congo’s men fondly recalls how raping young girls was one of his favorite things to do: “I would always say this is going to be hell for you but heaven on earth for me.” Adi Zulkadry, one of Congo’s fellow executioners in the ’60s, happily discusses the “Crush the Chinese” campaign where he, personally, stabbed dozens of Chinese Indonesians in the street, including the father of his own Chinese girlfriend. The list of atrocities is seemingly endless, many of which Congo and his goons gleefully reenact as splashy, Golden-Age-of-Hollywood” vignettes, complete with singing, dancing, costumes and surreal sets.
Far from serving as a glorified snuff film, however, The Act of Killing has a much more subversive intent. Since the people who Oppenheimer and his crew intend to target are still very much in power and “beloved” by their countrymen, shedding light on their heinous actions isn’t quite as easy as sitting down for a traditional interview. As one of the soldiers says, regarding the Geneva Conventions definition of war crimes: “War crimes are defined by the winner and I am the winner.” When the vice-president of the country is speaking at one of your rallies, you have to assume that your group has official government support. In order to “hang” these criminals, Oppenheimer needs to give them enough rope: the result will speak to the whole world.
Since so much of the world seems to either turn a blind eye to the massacres in Indonesia or was actively supporting it (Western governments threw their support behind the cleansing under the guise of “stomping out Commies”), The Act of Killing may serve as the first real glimpse into that past history. Even more importantly, this comes directly from the mouths of those who committed the crimes: an unwitting digital confession, as it were. When Congo takes the filmmakers to the area where they conducted mass executions and describes, proudly, how he made the killing more efficient by switching from beating to a wire/strangulation technique, he’s doing something very important: documenting for the entire world his complicity in the crimes. Perhaps I’m being unduly optimistic, but if Congo and his cronies are ever actually brought to justice, it will probably be from evidence like this. Rather than relying on the eye-witness testimony of survivors, this is straight from the horses’ mouths, as it were: the killers aren’t denying the events, they’re describing them in gory detail.
The whole film is wretchedly, terribly powerful, the kind of movie that becomes instantly unforgettable, for better or worse, the moment you watch it. You will be changed by this: maybe a little, maybe a lot…but you will be changed. There’s something about seeing events this terrible, this real, that brands your soul. We’re used to seeing the face of evil, by this point in humanity’s history, but I don’t know that evil has ever looked this happy, this complacent and at peace with the world. Up until the end, viewing so much grinning depravity, so much hopeless oppression, made me lose hope: this wasn’t a story where the good guys won…where there even were good guys, to be honest. This was the story of terrible, amoral people committing heinous acts to innocent people.
But then, towards the end, something happens. Congo, whether through the constant reminder of his past or through his own portrayal of various murder victims, seems to change. He begins to grow wearier, smiles less. He seems to be troubled, instantly, as if he’s aged 30 years overnight. Could it be that he has finally come to realize the weight of his actions, that he sees the inherent evil of a massacre perpetuated because he and his young friends, in their words, “would do anything for money and wanted new clothes?” He seems to be more thoughtful but Congo is a cagey guy: could this be some sort of attempt to hedge his bets, to straddle both sides of the fence? Congo makes a statement that seems to confirm this: watching the footage has made him feel what the victims felt. He seems genuinely sorry but then the filmmakers land the killing blow: as Oppenheimer gently reminds him from off-camera, what happened to his victims was actually real, not a film. For the first time in the entire film, the light goes out of Anwar Congo’s eyes and the aging gangster/torturer/mass-murderer/statesman/grandfather seems completely speechless. This is not about Congo receiving redemption: he doesn’t deserve it. This is, however, about finally admitting (even if only to himself) that what happened was actually wrong.
The 1965-1966 massacres in Indonesia are a terrible dark stain on humanity’s blood-spattered history and have been largely over-looked and downplayed in the 50 years since. The film begins with a terrible, but true, quote from Voltaire: “All killing is prohibited and punished unless done in large number and to the sound of trumpets.” This is true and only another reason why The Act of Killing should be required viewing: it refuses to let this pass into the gauzy fog of time, obscured from the prying eyes of the world. This was a film that hit me hard, as if someone had punched me right in the gut. I’m willing to wager that it will hit you equally hard, if you give it the chance.