In Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, and following a failed coup attempt against the Sukharno government, military and paramilitary groups killed over 500,000 people in a bloody purge of suspected communists and ethnic Chinese. The killings paved the way for Suharto’s thirty-year military dictatorship and are still celebrated today as a foundational event in the nation’s history. Joshua Oppenheimer’s gruelling but inspired The Act of Killing (2012) doesn’t offer a straightforward history lesson, but rather we’re privy to the reminiscences of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two ‘veterans’ with genocidal pasts.
Starting as small-time gangsters and ticket scalpers, Anwar, Adi and their gangs of cohorts were used by the military as hired thugs and soon graduated to enthusiastic mass murderers. Oppenheimer follows the now ordinary-looking old men as they go about their lives; a bored pot-bellied Adi follows his wife and daughter around a luxury shopping mall; Anwar feeds the chickens and plays with his young grandchildren. The contented pair gossip and reminisce of the days of killing – Anwar killed over one thousand people by his own admission – and in a stroke of weird, twisted genius Oppenheimer offers them the opportunity to depict their heinous crimes: to, in effect, make their own film in whichever cinematic style suits them best.
So, the men choreograph a re-enactment of a village massacre, they’re made up in gore, torture each other and put on glittering song and dance numbers. These murderers have never been held accountable for their crimes and are in fact lauded by a political party which grew out of the death squads, but instead of a straightforward condemnation The Act of Killing becomes a ‘making of’ the film of their lives, and in doing so reveals to us and in part to them, the darkness at the heart of their history. German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt’s authored cliché about the banality of evil has rarely been so effectively documented.
Almost unimaginable cruelty becomes routine as Anwar demonstrates his preferred method – strangling with a wire – like an old workman proud of a job well done. The true shock is that the violence lurks underneath the surface even today. The victims haunt Oppenheimer’s hybrid doc as a structuring absence. There’s the occasional muttering of disbelief from a technician; a Chinese actor tells the gangsters of his father-in-law’s murder, laughing and apologising for even mentioning it. Yet, other than that, the Congo and Zulkadry are condemned through their own mouths and the gaudy horror of their lucid dreams.