Am I supposed to laugh during a film about a bunch of right wing mass murderers? Of course, The Act of Killing was co-produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, so the answer might be yes. Of course, I was also terrified, disgusted, stunned and ultimately moved by this story too – what I do not normally expect from a documentary about this sort of material is just frankly, how entertaining this film is. Much of this entertainment is supplied by the gangsters themselves – killers working on behalf of the anti-Communist purge in Indonesia in 1965-1966, one of the guys surmised that he personally killed about 1,000 people. These guys are legends in Indonesian circles, feted by the government and more or less bulletproof in their society. We see this as one of them, Safit Pardede, makes his rounds collecting protection money from Chinese merchants, while demanding a smile as it is done so. Imagine a Goodfellas where not only does Paulie Cicero get away with it, but he is a guest of Barack Obama, and you start to get the idea.
Of course, being heroes, who wouldn’t jump at director Joshua Oppenheimer’s offer to help make and star in a movie about their exploits? As one of the gangsters notes, they got a lot of their stylistic ideas from old Hollywood movies anyway. They know a popular entertainment when they see one. And so we get an amazing collision between a first person account of unspeakable terror along with a sort of “let’s make a movie” romp. Oppenheimer does not use narration, and is only heard off screen asking some fairly basic questions – so we are at sea. The tone is not being spoon fed to us, but we are invited to experience this. The movie scenes themselves are a combination of torture scenes ripped out of American action movies, interspersed with these startlingly weird fantasy sequences. One unforgettable image is a fantasy sequence taking place outside of a fish restaurant (and by “fish restaurant” I don’t mean a restaurant that serves fish – they might be vegan for all I know). For this, Hernan Koto, one of the old gangster’s friends dresses up in the female role – making him a sort of Indonesian Divine (his wardrobe choices throughout are spectacular), and against the backdrop of Indonesia and the bright colors I was half expecting Bollywood backup dancers to materialize.
The making of the film serves are the core of the documentary, and what we get are these sorts of bizarre movie scenes juxtaposed with some truly terrifying moments where the real horror of what happened in Indonesia surfaces. One occurs early on, when a scene is staged as they look to cast “terrified onlookers” and the screaming and crying sound all too real. Another occurs later, when a Chinese merchant lobbies for his side of the story to be told – and the story he tells of his family being destroyed is tragic, underlined by his need to point out “I am not criticizing your behavior”. The need for many to equivocate runs rampant.
A lot of these guys did monstrous things, but they are fellow human beings – and the redeeming possibility is that there is some humanity. Certainly as the film evolves, we learn that Anwar Congo has been having bad dreams and visions about what he has done. One of his fellow killers – Adi Zulkadry – is ruthless when he berates one of the former newspaper workers who claims he did not know what the gangsters did. Indeed as the film moves on, it starts to be about these two men to me – and how the atrocities they committed live in their souls. Congo’s effects are obvious (and especially true in the stunning climax), but Zulkadry’s is also. He has moved on, compartmentalized the incident, but clearly he is not blind – and his anger when someone wants to float the narrative about what happened is telling.
That said, like all good movies, there are other angles. It is obviously about Indonesia today, as well as how a society can live with a lie (US knows a lot about that). It can also be read as comic, in the movie depictions as well as the bizarre need for these people who have gotten away with so much to flaunt it. But most of all to me it comes back to Congo and Zulkadry – and how time and the gravity of what they did have started to catch up with them. Human beings did this to other human beings, and when Congo realizes it at the end, it is somewhat vindicating. It isn’t bringing the dead back, but it’s something.