Film Review | The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer's shocking documentary about an Indonesian death squad responsible for the massacre of a million suspected 'communists' in the mid-60s is the most important film of the year... if not the past decade.

Former Indoniesian death squad executioners Adi Zulkadry
(left) and Anwar Congo get ready to re-enact some of their
killings on camera as part of Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking
– and Oscar-courting – documentary.
Former Indoniesian death squad executioners Adi Zulkadry (left) and Anwar Congo get ready to re-enact some of their killings on camera as part of Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking – and Oscar-courting – documentary.

One of the executive producers of The Act of Killing, the revered German filmmaker Werner Herzog, had said that exploring 'the bliss of evil' was one his motivations behind making the Nicolas Cage-starring thriller Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans (2009).

It's a proposition that strikes to the quick because as a culture, we tend to view evil as something entirely corrupt and debasing, while forgetting that it can provide a surge of hedonistic delight to its perpetrators.

(On a somewhat related note: the reason Trainspotting remains a superior treatment of drug use is because neither original Irvine Welsh novel nor the Danny Boyle film adaptation shy away from stating that yes, drugs feel good - it's why people take them in the first place.)

Director Joshua Oppenheimer rides this notion to a stunning conclusion in his Oscar-courting documentary, which challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders - responsible for the massacre of thousands of alleged 'communists' in the 1960s - to re-enact their killings in whichever film genre they like.

And as if that pitch weren't mind-bending enough, Oppenheimer, instead of baldly presenting their amateur film productions, plumbs this heart of darkness deeper and deeper.

The resulting film is a panoramic journey of the killers' psyche - with the emphasis resting on the figures of leader Anwar Congo and his second-in-command, Adi Zulkadry (along with their younger cohort, the corpulent Herman Soto).

The film - running over two hours - is thin on historical exposition, giving viewers just enough background information to put them in the picture while not dwelling on it too much (there's no archive footage or talking heads to provide running commentary).

We meet our killers as people first, which solidifies another strand in Oppenheimer's approach to this sensitive but sadly universal subject: not only do we witness our protagonists indulging in the bliss of evil, the familiar trope of the banality of evil is evident in full force here too.

More than any of the film(s)-within-a-film re-enactments, it's the talking heads segments that prove to be the most shocking parts of the documentary.

Examples abound: a paramilitary leader urging Oppenheimer to play down a 'rallying of the troops' congregation lest they come across as too barbaric (while paradoxically assuring him that the full extent of their rage shouldn't be censored);

Adi Zulkadry rationalising the killings away while betraying full cognizance of them (he acknowledges that what he did was wrong but accepts that since he did it for money, that it "works" to justify them that way); Anwar reminiscing about how Elvis Presley movies put him in a happy mood, and that as a result he would execute the killings in a 'happy' way...

READ MORE: Exclusive interview with The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer

More often than not, The Act of Killing unspools like a baggy series of vignettes, but when the source material is this striking, its apparent lack of structure and overindulgence is entirely justified. If anything, Oppenheimer's rolling narrative feels generous in the way that it regales us with one insight after another into these uniquely twisted individuals.

The effect is that of a cubist painting: the gangsters - through an act of creative etymology, they dub themselves 'free men' - are presented with all their contradictions out in display at one go. Watching them speak about their killings in retrospect is dizzying - you sit, mouth agape, as the apparent psychological contradictions spill thick and fast from our protagonists' mouths.

Zulkadry emerges as the most eloquent of the group, challenging Oppenheimer to place their killings in context (instead of just blaming us, he tells him, to tell your story properly you should go all the way back to Cain and Abel).

But the way in which he successfully suppresses any guilt he may have had is chilling - particularly as juxtaposed against images of him patronising shopping malls with his wife and daughter.

Anwar Congo, the real protagonist of the piece, emerges as more of a tortured figure however (in a memorable scene, Zulkadry attempts to convince him to see a psychiatrist).

He confesses to being haunted by nightmares over what he did, and fears retribution from a cosmic 'karma'.

Oppenheimer cleverly uses this note of doom to narrow his focus as the film heads to a close, consolidating the film's themes into a character arc for Anwar.

What emerges perhaps most strongly is how wended the gangsters were to American film culture.

Having scalped cinema tickets back in the 60s, they remain thoroughly familiar with Hollywood iconography, citing the likes of Al Pacino as heroes, with the idea of communists banning American films from Indonesia coming across as big an affront as any other political decision they may have made.

One of the film's most powerful gut-punches is administered when Oppenheimer shows us a gangster/film noir version of one of their executions, with Anwar alternating between the role of aggressor and victim.

It's implied that he's never felt this degree of empathy with his victims before. But if the film would have taught us anything up until that point, it's that some of us have a startling capacity to conveniently forget even the most monstrous of deeds.

The Act of Killing is definitely the most important film of the year.

Scratch that - it's among the most important films of the noughties so far. Nowhere else will you see such a naked, thorough expose of the anatomy of evil.

More disturbingly still, it forces you to meet the killers face-to-face as fully-fledged human beings... leaving you with no choice but to confront the monstrous complexity at play here.

The Act of Killing will be shown for one last time at St James Cavalier, Valletta this Thursday.

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