Saturday, July 20, 2013
Act of Killing
This bone-chilling documentary opens with a quote from Voltaire ("All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets"), which gives way to the sight of dancers emerging from a giant fish, a black-clad priest and man in garish electric-blue drag conducting some ecstatic service at the foot of a waterfall, while a directorial voice commands: "Smile! Don't let the cameras catch you looking bad!" The film ends with the sound of someone retching up their tortured soul, an awful, growling, vomitous howl, like an anguished demon being wrenched from a fragile body. In between, we find ourselves looking long into an abyss in which unspeakable horror and utterly mundane madness are thrown together in the existential equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider – fact and fiction meeting head on with quietly earth-shattering results.
In the wake of a failed coup in Indonesia in the mid-60s, more than a million people were murdered in a bloody anti-communist cull. Many of the killings – and the persecutions that followed – were carried out by gangsters who have not only escaped prosecution, but are now heralded as local heroes. Attempting to understand the open-ended legacy of such unpunished atrocities, film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer not only interviewed the killers (whose actions are anything but hidden) but asked them to stage dramatic reconstructions of their (non-)crimes, to "create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished". His title, "The Act of Killing", encapsulates this duality, not only examining the awful reality of murder, but also staging its re-enactment. Like some horrendous real-life version of Man Bites Dog, we spend the next two hours in the company of laughing, joking mass-murderers, blithely revisiting their blood-drenched past in a manner that is at once insanely surreal and distressingly domestic.
"It was as if we were killing… happily," says the elderly Anwar Congo, recalling the heyday of legitimised slaughter, demonstrating the easiest way to strangle a man with a length of wire and a piece of wood. Decapitations are re-enacted with cheap make-up and gory props, livers fed to gawping dead heads. Movies are a constant topic of conversation, with the techniques and fashion tips of Hollywood's outlaw icons providing perverse inspiration for hustlers whose mantra is that "gangster" means "free man". Video playback prompts complaints that a killer would never have worn white trousers on the job, and a discussion of the influence of sadistic movies that these would-be film-stars promise to surpass.
Most shocking of all is the recreation of an attack upon a village in which families were burned out of their homes and butchered, during the filming of which one subject jokes about the rape of children in off-hand terms that defy either description or repetition. At this point, we appear to have reached the nadir of the human condition, the very heart of darkness. Yet in the midst of this horror, something begins to dawn upon the killers; the idea that what they are doing might be wrong. Crucially, it all begins with appearances. "We shouldn't look brutal," says the leader of the Pancasila youth, after watching a baying mob whipping themselves into an axe-wielding frenzy. "We shouldn't look like we want to drink people's blood – that's dangerous… for the image of the organisation." Slowly and inexorably, the power of drama, and of the moving image, start to take hold. "I never thought it would look so bad," says a witness who barely flinched at real murder, but who is visibly shaken by this fictional recreation. Role reversals add to the impact, with killers playing their victims, stumbling toward something resembling empathy, seeing their own actions as if for the first time – finally real, only when unreal.
Killing is not necessarily a cold business, and killers are not necessarily cold-blooded. "The Act of Killing" introduces us to several Indonesian mass murderers who could be movie stars. They jump at the chance offered by this documentary's maker, Joshua Oppenheimer, to make their own movie, a chronicle of their years carrying out an anti-Communist purge that claimed over a million lives in 1965-66. When the military recruited them as muscle, they became the most feared and sadistic of the liquidators. But they did it all in style: Notorious killer Anwar Congo points to a black-and-white photo of young man who looks like a sleek hybrid of Charles Bronson and Smokey Robinson: "That's me. I'm wearing a plaid shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes…" He advises the film's costumer not to dress him like that for the massacre scenes. "I wore jeans for killing. To look cool, I imitated movie stars."
Still fit and spry in his sixties, Congo uses the film to confront facts long denied publicly and long sublimated personally. He and his pals believe that no court, from local authorities to the International Criminal Court, can prosecute them for their crimes 40 years after the fact. This gives them the confidence to deliver unguarded performances for their movie and offer astonishingly candid testimony for Oppenheimer's. Yet almost every night, Congo says, some of the hundreds of victims he killed with his own hands visit him in his dreams.
One of the more excruciating recurring motifs here is the sight of present-day civilians doing their best real-life acting whenever these gangsters are around. Indonesia may have returned to a semblance of democracy after strong man Suharto's resignation in 1998, but the murderers still control politicians and business leaders.
And the people still fear them. Chinese shop keepers and market vendors who are old enough to have been around when their people were indiscriminately included in the purge are forced to smile wide while handing protection money over to Safit Pardede, arguably the vilest of the gangsters in the film. (Later on, while taking a break from filming a reenactment of a village massacre, he reminisces wistfully with his buddies about raping fourteen year-old girls. "I'd say, 'It's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me!'") Such moments made me wonder whether I was watching yet another reenactment, since it seems pretty crazy for a thug to openly admit crimes on camera.