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The Act of Killing: So much wrongness on one screen

August 30, 2013
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the-act-of-killingThe Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Plays at the Charles Aug. 31 at 11:30 a.m., Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., and Sept. 5 at 9 p.m.

Some things would probably never occur to you if you’ve never killed a lot of people. For example, wear jeans if you’re going to be strangling defenseless detainees with a length of wire—if you wear white pants, you’re likely to get blood all over them.

Anwar Congo knows these things because he was one of the street thugs the Indonesian military junta recruited to crack down on “communists”—aka anyone it wanted gone—in 1965. In the space of about a year, more than a million Indonesians were killed, about 1,000 of them by Congo personally. He chats about these experiences with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer in an avuncular, downright jovial fashion, and why not? Congo is still celebrated as an Indonesian national hero. But Oppenheimer (working with a number of co-directors) goes further than shooting mere talking-head interviews: He invites Congo and some of his fellow ad hoc executioners to reenact their deeds for his camera. The resulting 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, is one of the more disturbing and fascinating things you’ll see this year, if you dare.

Oppenheimer acquired incredible access to Congo and Herman Koto, another former “gangster” (a term of pride). In one scene, Congo hugs his grandchildren, in the next he blithely jokes and dances (yes, dances) at a favored execution spot, in the next he regales a television talk-show audience with his exploits, egged on by a fawning host.

The day-in-the-life footage serves as context for the scenes in which Congo, Koto, and other gangsters reenact their crimes. Sometimes they use soundstages, having discussed with Oppenheimer how they would like to do so—say, in the style of their much-loved old-time crime movies (they learned a lot of their homicidal swagger from Hollywood) or via elaborate costumed fantasy sequences. The resolutely butch Koto often performs in some variant of female drag. At other times they go on location, so to speak, drafting ordinary locals for faux interrogations and raids. Turns out that being ordered to act scared by mass murderers with still-strong ties to power is a fantastic motivation. One man pleads with such craven, spit-dribbling conviction that all bets are off about whether he’s acting, channeling a past terror, sincerely worried about leaving the room alive, or some combination of all three.

The Act of Killing’s discursive path through these men’s lives and Indonesia’s past eventually forms a rough narrative arc. Despite the sanguine accounts of torture and bloodletting, reenacting such horrors begins to dredge up more troubling feelings about the old days for some—surely we have here a new record for Most Dry Heaving in a Feature Film. The meta-metaness of Oppenheimer’s documentary perhaps leaves open some questions regarding how sincere these revelations are, but its garish portrait of unchecked human evil will stick with you, to say the least.