Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing
An early scene in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing finds Anwar Congo, the film’s central figure, on the roof of what is now a handbag shop in Sumatra, Indonesia. He is an old and bespectacled man, perhaps in his late sixties, sporting a green, short-sleeved, button-up shirt that remains untucked from his smart, white slacks. He smiles knowingly at the camera, seemingly lighthearted and sure of himself as he fastens a metal wire to a pipe attached to the building, commenting matter-of-factly, “We have to re-enact this properly.” Congo’s demeanor might suggest that he is about to reveal an old cooking recipe or a trick he learned long ago on the way toward perfecting a hobby. Instead, he is re-enacting his preferred method of killing human beings, many of whom he killed on this very roof. He and his compatriots began by beating their victims to death but found that method too bloody. So they began to strangle people with metal wire instead. Faster. Easier. Cleaner. After wrapping the wire around the neck of a pretend victim and simulating a full-bodied pulling motion, Congo smiles at the camera and describes how he turned to alcohol, drugs, and various amusements in order to forget the killings. Then he dances the cha-cha.
In 1965 there was a failed Communist coup in Indonesia; in response, the military enlisted the help of gangsters and paramilitary groups in seeking out and executing over a million “Communists.” Anyone opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused. With the direct aid of Western governments, the defeat of Communism in Indonesia was considered a Cold War success. Little scholarship has been done and very little media attention has been paid to these mass killings.
The Act of Killing is documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s attempt to bring these gruesome stories to light. The result is a film that is deeply disturbing, honest yet deceitful, strangely surreal, introspective, self-delusional and, at times, even funny. It is incredibly difficult to watch, but in doing so the viewer gets the sense that she is seeing something important and, as such, the film is a profound and brilliant study of evil, humanity, and how we make sense of it all through narrative. Oppenheimer argues that storytelling is a device that is enmeshed in human culture and used to distance ourselves from “monsters,” to define our societies, and to reframe horrific acts such as those of Congo and his comrades.
Oppenheimer’s film refuses to simply point the finger and let us gawk at an evil society, as we stand comfortably apart. Instead, he lets those that committed those horrible acts in 1965 tell their own stories. He allows them to become people to us. Like social psychologist and genocide scholar James Waller, Oppenheimer seems to be saying that “...it is ordinary individuals, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil” (Waller 2002, 19). Indeed, we become close to them and begin to see ourselves in them.
The culture that Oppenheimer unveils is eerily similar to images of Nazi Germany; one of the great contributions of the film is how it illustrates that the abuses and corruption that enabled the 1965 massacres are still in place. Indeed, Oppenheimer commented at a question and answer session in Minneapolis, “I had this feeling that I had wandered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust and found the Nazis still in power.” Perpetrators boast openly about cutting the throats of ethnic Chinese, raping whole villages, and sadistically torturing those suspected of being enemies of the state. Parades are held for the paramilitaries, the Vice President publicly supports the use of violence against “Communist” threats, and public television programs glorify the killings.
Social vignettes like this are pivotal in establishing context in the film; however, the heart of the film is comprised of the more intimate interactions with the individual perpetrators. Oppenheimer began the project by seeking out the families of the victims, but found that fear of reprisal kept them largely silent. He also learned that the executioners, gangsters, and paramilitary groups are still applauded as heroes in Indonesia and are proud to relate stories of how they killed. After conducting forty interviews with such people, Oppenheimer met Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.
Congo and Zulkadry, both of whom were eager to tell their stories, started out as “movie theater gangsters,” scalping tickets at a cinema that showed American films. They were eventually recruited by the “New Order” government to interrogate and execute alleged Communists. They did so efficiently and ruthlessly. Oppenheimer encouraged them to tell their stories in any way they desired. Congo and Zulkadry began by simply recounting their experiences but soon turned to physical demonstrations of their methods. These demonstrations evolved into re-enactments on soundstages with make-up, costumes, and props and were finally mixed with imaginative depictions of Congo’s nightmares and even an astounding scene of imagined reconciliation between Congo and his Communist victims.
Nevertheless, most of the film is comprised of dialogue or monologues aimed at the camera, and these are the primary devices through which we get to know Zulkadry. He is now successful. One scene shows him with his wife and daughter as they visit a mall and receive massages. He has learned to deal with the situation through repression. The key to avoiding feelings of guilt, he tells Congo, “is to find the right excuse.” The ends, for Zulkadry, justify the means. Intellectualizing his actions, then, Zulkadry justifies himself by appealing to a form of power-centered relativism that allows him to reject things like international law. “The Geneva Conventions may be today’s morality, but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.” Zulkadry is the most forthright perpetrator in the film. He calls killing “the worst crime” and readily admits that he and his companions were the cruel ones: not the Communists. However, he does not think that such information should be made public. “Not everything true is good,” he comments, before suggesting that the truth of their cruelty might give the victims’ families enough legitimacy to rekindle the struggle.
Congo’s attitude is much different. He has become an intensely conflicted man. Like Augustine in the grips of his intense, internal struggle with sin, Congo seems to cry out “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” On one hand, he seems to relish his image as a gangster, appearing on television in a cowboy hat, smiling about his escapades, and attending paramilitary meetings. On the other hand, he is deeply tormented by the memory of his actions. His nightmares intensify as the film progresses, and he begins to feel more and more overwhelmed, describing his victims as ghosts who continually haunt him. A re-enactment of a village being burned is too much for him; he relays, “I didn’t think it would be this awful.” During the filming of an interrogation scene, he sits in a chair with a blindfold over his eyes. His friend and fellow gangster, Herman Coto, wraps a wire around his neck and begins to pull. Congo fidgets and shakes, waving Herman off. They remove the blindfold, and he slumps in the chair, visibly weak, saying, “I can’t do that again.” Later, he says to Oppenheimer, “I could feel what the people I tortured felt.” Oppenheimer steps in to speak for us, “Actually, the people you tortured felt a lot worse, because they weren’t making a movie. They were actually going to die.”
Max Weber wrote that there is a “universal phenomenon,” a “basic psychological pattern” such that “When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate one who must equally have earned his misfortune” (Weber 491). The word for the satisfaction of this impulse is legitimation. Both Zulkadry and Congo openly admit this necessity. The difference is that while Zulkadry feels legitimized, Congo’s sense of legitimation is crumbling.
The Act of Killing is a film about the narratives that allow people to legitimize horrific acts, but it is also about the process of telling a narrative that brings these acts to light. Acting out the killings in front of a camera forces the perpetrators to face up to their acts of killing and pushes the audience to hold them, and ourselves, accountable for the continuing legitimation of such acts. As such, it is a film not only about evil, but about the requirements of repentance and reconciliation as well. Yet it is difficult to know how far Congo, or Indonesian society, or the world community is willing to go down the long and difficult road that facing up to these crimes would require. Near the end of the film, Congo constructs a scene that truly defies description, but includes a host of dancing women, a waterfall, a cross-dressing gangster, and for a soundtrack “Born Free” by Andy Williams. He is then presented with a gold medal by two of his victims who thank him “a thousand times” for executing them and sending them to heaven. Legitimation writ large.
And so the last sequence is perhaps the best way to sum up this rich and complex film. We return to the place where many of Congo’s crimes occurred; the rooftop of a handbag shop with weather beaten tiles and grates—this time at night. Congo no longer seems lighthearted, but weighed-down. He is unable, or unwilling, to look into the camera, slowly explaining, “This is where we tortured and killed the people we captured. I know it was wrong, but I had to do it.” He stands and describes how they disposed of the bodies. He takes a burlap sack and explains that in order to keep things discreet it was important to conceal the body in a bag. In mid-sentence, he stops and leans over, holding his stomach. He then begins to retch, but nothing comes of it. All of the guilt and remorse haven’t led to any type of forgiveness or reconciliation. It’s only dry-heaving.
Ross Moret is currently a doctoral student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. John Moret is a film programmer and theater manager as well as co-founder of the film-blog All-Star Video.
Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds. Berkeley, California: University of California Press: 1978.