Before I review this film, I think it’s important to give a bit of background on how I came to know about this film. I first heard of it from an Indonesian friend of mine when I went back to Jakarta last December. At the time I hadn’t even heard of the film, but she said it was about the events in 1965, when the Indonesian government led by the first president Sukarno was overthrown in a military coup. Every Indonesian in my generation was subjected to brainwashing by the Suharto regime that the communist party (PKI) is evil and that they pose a mortal threat. Every year we had to watch a propaganda film that’s broadcasted in every single TV network so there’s no way we could’ve escaped it, whilst there’s not a single mention of this brutal massacre anywhere in our history books.
What this film exposes is that the new military dictatorship basically used any means at their disposal to get rid of anyone presumed to have any association with the communist movement. The killings resulted in one of the most brutal genocide in history, with nearly a million people slaughtered within a year. The Act of Killing is a documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish. It’s obvious some of the scenes they re-enacted are inspired by Hollywood films, as the perpetrators of the killings themselves admitted that they’re big fans of violent Brando and Pacino movies. In fact, some of the perpetrators who were ‘premans’ (street-level gangsters) used to be ticket scalpers preying on fans of Hollywood movies at their local cinemas.
No doubt this is one of the most bizarre and frightening films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most inventive. Most documentaries I’ve seen usually have talking heads or footage of the subject matter, but in this case, we not only get the first-hand account of the event, but the perpetrators themselves willingly re-enact the brutal events on camera. I enjoyed the fact that the dialog is in Indonesian, so that fact, along with the setting of film, gave me a sense of nostalgia. But the film is so disturbing I had to watch it in two parts. I’ve never felt so many conflicting emotions running through me as I’m watching it, and even days later, it’s all I could think about.
The documentary is so well-crafted as it really transported me to another realm. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent nearly a decade working on this film, which grew out of another project he was working on in Indonesia [more on that in the interview below]. The Texas-born filmmaker [who currently resides in Copenhagen] had been fluent in Indonesian whilst filming this (you could hear him speaking Bahasa Indonesia to the actors in the film), and it’s apparent that he cares very deeply about the story. I’m amazed at how candid the former death squad leaders were in revealing the acts of killings they did four decades ago, down to the most gruesome details, both in words and in the form of the various re-enactments. It’s interesting that in some of the scenes they’re playing the ‘victim’ of the torture and execution. At one point Anwar said to Joshua that perhaps he could feel what his victims felt when they were subjected to such horrifying terror, but the director wisely but politely rebuked him. Obviously he could never felt what his victims felt, given that what Anwar took part in was only fiction, not the real deal.
The word ‘amusing’ perhaps isn’t what you’d expect in a documentary about mass killings… yet the re-enactments that were inspired by various Hollywood genres ranging from Cowboy movies, crime drama, and bizarre musical numbers where a member of Indonesian paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila was dressed in an ornate drag costume. Some of the scenes are actually funny, I guess maybe because they’re speaking in my native tongue I was able to pick up some of the gestures/jokes that might’ve been lost to non-Indo speakers. Yet I found myself feeling guilty when I laughed at some of the scenarios, because obviously it’s revolting that these guys are in such good spirits and joking around whilst filming such horrific acts. It’s one thing when an actor has to act out a fictional violent film, but every scenes they depicted here are based on true acts of killing that they themselves performed to hundreds of thousand innocent victims.
The film focuses mainly on two of the most notorious death squad leaders in North Sumatra, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry. It’s interesting to note the different reactions between the two in how they cope with their past sins. Anwar seems somewhat remorseful and honest about being haunted by his past, in the form of nightmares and psychological torment, whilst Adi is more defiant and in denial about how his past doesn’t really affect him. There’s an absurd conversation between the two when they’re talking about seeing a shrink to help alleviate their psychological issues. Ahah yeah, as if THAT would help anyone escape their conscience! One of the most intriguing character in the film is Herman, who’s dressed in drag for a good part of the film. He wasn’t actually involved in the massacre at the time as he was only about 10 years old then, but he played a prominent part in this film. His evolution throughout the film is striking as he starts out as someone who greatly admires his friend Anwar. As the film progresses, it’s as if his eyes were opened to the reality of evil that he’s somehow being shielded from all his life.
Despite all the grisly depictions, the most affecting scenes to me are surprisingly those when no words are spoken. Whether it’s a scene of Herman playing drums while wailing and screaming uncontrollably, or the deafeningly quiet moment when Anwar simply stops at the stairway as he’s going down from the rooftop where a lot of the killings happened. Both scenes rendered me speechless. But really, there are too many breathtaking moments to mention in this film. It’s truly a film one must experience, I don’t think my review does it justice as it barely scratch the surface of the depth of what’s being depicted on screen. Harrowing, shocking, and at times unbearable to watch… but it’s also surprisingly poetic and beautiful. There are few films out there that I’d call essential viewing, but I think this documentary is one of them. I’m not just saying that because it pertains the darkest history of my homeland, but as Joshua told me during the interview, this incident isn’t just about Indonesia, but it speaks volumes about our humanity and what we humans are capable of.
I hope you’d check it out when it’s out in your area or available to rent. Be sure to seek out the 159-min director cut whenever possible. I’m sincerely hoping that The Act of Killing would get a nod for Best Documentary at the Oscars, as well as other kudos come award season.
Below is my interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. He was so gracious when we met at the lobby of W Hotel, and when I greeted him in Indonesian, he immediately started speaking Bahasa Indonesia to me so he’s obviously still quite fluent in my native language. As we sat down, he told me that I was the very first English-language interviewer who’s Indonesian. What an honor that is indeed!
Josh, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU so much for taking the time in speaking with me. Terima kasih seribu! 😀
Please note that I had to break up the interview clips to make it more ‘digestible,’ but I did not edit anything that was being said. Click on the arrow to take a listen.
What makes you interested in this story about Indonesian history as an American?
This is not a story about Indonesian… this is a story about all of us. It’s how we as human beings commit evil, how we tell stories to justify… to lie to ourselves … So it’s not some distant reality. It’s the underbelly of our reality.
My father’s family and my step-mother’s family narrowly escaped the Holocaust. I grew up with the slogan, in the name of all culture, to prevent these things from happening.
How the film of The Act of Killing come about… which is a direct result from making ‘The Globalization Tapes’ documentary in 2001/2002:
Please come back and make a film about what happened in 1965… and about the oppression, fear, corruption, and impunity that was based on that.
The challenges in getting this film made:
The killing was the most important thing they [the perpetrators] have ever done in their whole life… and the basis for any career they’d ever have … What the perpetrators were boasting and telling things that was far more incriminating than anything the survivors could’ve said.
I felt like I’ve wandered into Germany, forty years after the Holocaust and somehow the Nazi’s still in power. And yet I recognize it’s a horrible situation, an important situation, but it’s not an unusual situation.
How did the re-enactments in the film come to be? Was it the perpetrators’ idea?
It grew organically… the whole method was a response to their openness.
When the audience see the perpetrators’ boasting, they’ll understand why we’re so afraid and the nature of this whole regime.
Filming the perpetrators… and their reaction about being the subjects of this film
Anwar was the 41st death squad member that I filmed. All of them were open and boastful, and they wanted to take me to the places they killed and show me how they did it. I was trying to understand what is the function of this openness… why and for whom are they so open?
What do you want people to get out of seeing this film?
I want the audience to see for one second… I want them to recognize a small part of themselves in Anwar. Because the moment you do that, the whole fantasy that the world is divided up between good guys and bad guys has to collapse… in that moment you can recognize that we’re much closer to these perpetrators than we’d like to think.
* The t-shirt Josh is referring to here is the $6 t-shirt he got from H&M that was made in Bangladesh, where the factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers made news back in April.
How did Werner Herzog become exec producer of this film?
Werner saw the director’s cut and said ‘do not cut this.’ But I’d be happy to watch cuts of the film, make sure you didn’t remove any ‘vital organs’ of the film.
It turns out that Joshua knew Herzog through one of the exec producers, British producer Andre Singer, has produced Herzog’s films in the past.
Did you get nightmares from filming… which part affects you the most?
It’s so irreversible what he’s done… Life is one way. That’s why we have to treat it with such care as something so precious, as we have only one chance.
The day after the interview, I attended a masterclass at Walker Art Center where Joshua did a 2-hour Q&A session about the film. I wish the recording had been available for me to link to, but I learned a bit more about the filmmaking process and how the film’s received in Indonesia, both by the perpetrators and the survivors of the victims of the massacre. If you see the end credits of the documentary, you’ll see that many of the names are listed as ‘anonymous.’ That’s because this film is such a controversial and risky endeavor for the people involved in making it. Even Joshua himself admitted that if he were to go back to Indonesia, he’s probably allowed in but not sure if he could get out safely. There are still powerful people who aren’t too keen that he made this film, nor did they ever thought this film would get such an International attention. I for one am thankful that Joshua made The Act of Killing and exposes the injustice and indescribable cruelty the perpetrators did. Even if they’d never get persecuted for war crimes, I sure hope some kind of justice will come out because of this.
Lastly, in response to my question about how the victims’ survivors respond to the film, Joshua revealed that a follow-up film is in the works on that topic. No details are available yet but for sure I’ll be on the lookout for that.