In ‘Act of Killing,’ a shocking look at mass murder

TORONTO--From “Hearts and Minds” to “Shoah,” documentary film has a long history of tackling difficult subjects like death and violence. But they’ve never looked at it in quite the way that Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn do in “The Act Of Killing,” one of the breakout documentaries of the Toronto International Film Festival and a movie that could well change how you view the form.

“Act of Killing’s” subject is the purge of an estimated 500,000 suspected Communists in 1965-66 in Indonesia, a politically significant event that preceded the long reign of the controversial Suharto. The murders, conducted by the so-called Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement, were grisly and indiscriminate, and the event stands as one of the most notorious mass killings of the 20th century.

But rather than assemble a documentary in a conventional way--talking heads, archival footage, etc--Oppenheimer and Cynn take a different approach. They put the camera on the killers and lets them relive what they did.


PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

More specifically, they allow them to reenact it, encouraging them to shoot a scripted “Hollywood movie” about the killings and discuss them while they did so. This is not a random exercise. Many watched violent Hollywood movies and took their cues from them as they practiced various forms of strangulation, gunplay and other forms of cruelty on their victims; indeed, they were even called “movie theater gangsters.”

The result is surreal and disturbing. “Act of Killing’ is a fly-on-the-wall look at men who committed heinous acts and, remarkably, see them not as sins but accomplishments. There is none of the soul-searching one might see in similar filmic explorations. “We were more free back then,” says one of the killers, in a common refrain.

The central character of his study is a man named Anwar Congo, a fascinating, deplorable and at times strangely human personality who killed what one of his fellow murderers estimates—proudly—was 1,000 people during the purges. He is aware enough to realize what he did but lacks the conscience to understand the implications. “They want to send me to the Hague?” he says in the film. ”Send me there. I’ll be a hero.” (The Hague, needless to say, is not interested in dredging up this horrific chapter.)

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Maybe most disturbing is that the killers were never prosecuted and in fact have been aligned with the ruling authorities. Interspersed throughout the movie are scenes in which members of the government attend Pancasila Youth events to commend them on their heroism and remind them that the root of the world “gangsters” is “free men.” These men also still inspire fear, which they use to extort land and other favors.

“It’s a story that has happened throughout history, except this time the killers won,” said Oppenheimer, a U.S.-born, London-based filmmaker who has spent much of the past decade in Indonesia.

In an interview in a condo above this city’s bustling downtown this week, Oppenheimer described his path to making the documentary (which also contains a third director credit for “Anonymous” in honor of unnamed indonesian collaborators). Filming a movie about the victims of the killings about a decade ago, Oppenheimer soon learned that the murderers were all around and eager to talk about their experiences. It sent him on a quest to track down as many as he could.

“I realized quickly I wasn’t getting sober introspection,” Oppenheimer said of his decision to film re-enactments instead of interviews. “I was getting performance.”

In one of the most provocative scenes of the movie, a rehearsal is staged in front of dozens of friends and family. A child plays the torture victim, pretending to wail as one of the children might have back in 1965. The child is cheered and gets applause from the grown-ups sitting all around.

“Indonesia is an extreme example, but it’s an allegory of what happens everywhere, even today,” Oppenheimer said. “We’re a lot closer to the perpetrators than we think,” he added, citing drone strikes and other modern methods of war.

One doesn’t need to agree with this assessment to feel the power of this film, however. With questions about the role of Hollywood violence percolating this summer, “The Act of Killing” and its Hollywood-obsessed villains couldn’t be more timely. With an intense moral seriousness about a subject that has recurred throughout history, it is also timeless.


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