THE ACT OF KILLING. (Director’s cut). Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. 159 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (strong themes).
This is one of the grimmest films you are likely to see.
Nevertheless, for those who can sit through it, it is a film to be recommended. It won an Ecumenical award at the Berlin film festival in 2013. Anyway, the title can act as a warning.
With the fall of the Soviet empire, one of the questions which lurked in people’s minds was: whatever happened to the KGB officials, their prison guards, the torturers?
And the same question could be raised about ex-Stasi, or any of those police regimes where there was a sudden transition and those who were in power, with a capacity for violence, had to merge into a different kind of society.
This is the background to this film. It is an Indonesian story. It takes us back to the anti-communist massacres of that year of living dangerously, 1965. There were many killers during that time. Many of them are still alive, living ordinary lives at home.
The idea behind this film is for the director to make contact with some of the killers of that time, especially Anwar Congo, who seems more than willing to participate in a film. He prides himself on being a movie fan, working in cinemas in the past, and really liking Elvis Presley. The film-makers had a plan to interview some of the killers, find out what made them tick in the past, and what they think and feel in retrospect. Another idea was then for them to re-enact a number of the killings, in whatever dramatic way they decided and wanted to.
The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, stays behind the camera and does not intrude personally into the film. This gives some control to Anwar Congo and the friends and associates he brings into the film. One is a rather more controlling killer from that era. The other is a rather large and younger man, who remembers some of the events when he was a child, tags along with Congo, likes to cross-dress, especially for the film, and finally decides that he should stand for election in a campaign for local issues. God forbid, that he should win! A momentary spoiler: he doesn’t. But he continues to hang around the film, participating in the re-enactments, giving audience plenty to think about when they encounter this kind of character in Indonesia today.
It seems best simply to say that Congo has no remorse. In fact, he has no reluctance to go back to the past, talking about the killings, the brutality of stabbings and bashings, moving to garrotting for which he gets some associates to help him re-enact with quite some vividness. At other times he is content to discuss matters and compare notes with his old friend. And he’s certainly not hesitating in talking to camera.
He takes for granted that the communists were the enemy and had to be eliminated. This was the period of the Vietnam war and American and allied antagonism towards the communists in Indochina. There were government implications in the hiring of these killers. With some nods to American movies, they saw themselves as gangsters. However, gangsters was not a slighting term. Rather, Congo explains several times, gangsters were those who really free – he says that is the main meaning of the word (with a touch of the 1965 song, Born Free to illustrate this. So, of course, this meant that the gangsters were the good guys and whatever they did, the massacres, were good.
There are many scenes in the latter part of the film where there are local elections, and some of the politicians in Sumatra give their views on the way elections work, especially in terms of bribes, special deals and promises. There also are some official scenes of banquets with these politicians who made no secret of their way of life. Then, it is something of a shock, to see Congo interviewed on local television where the role of the interviewer, a bright young woman, is to enable them to talk without any embarrassment about what they have done in the past - and receive her congratulations.
Part of the intrigue of the film is the different ways in which Congo and his friends decide to dramatize what they did. Sometimes there are very realistic, getting help from some of the local women and children to role play what I was like to be a communist and be arrested and tortured. At other times there are quite some surreal moments, especially at the opening with a strange kind of building, a cross between a Nissan hut and a giant tortoise, from which a group of dancing girls appear and in rather strange local dramas, especially with the larger man and his impersonating a cross-dresser, which make demands on the audience imagination of what they symbolize.
The director’s cut runs for over 2 ½ hours, so the film is something of an endurance experience. However, it is a document about a particular era in Indonesia’s history, the elimination of communist enemies of the state, the brutal massacres and the carefree attitudes of their murderers, even after almost half a century of from the events.
The film, harrowing as it is at times, represents not only the face of evil, but the faces of actual evil.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 3 2013.