Josh Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing centers on the massacre in Indonesia in the mid-'60s of communists and suspected communists. Estimates of the dead vary — it could have been a million or more. Most were executed by paramilitaries in league with then-Gen. and future President Suharto. The killers are still there, unpunished, even honored.
And they love movies, especially gangster movies. So when Oppenheimer approached them to make a film — to help write and direct their life stories, even put on makeup and costumes and re-enact scenes, they agreed with enthusiasm. They even participated in flabbergasting songs and dances — big production numbers.
With the film's release, some subjects have backpedaled, saying they misunderstood the project. What we see, though, leaves little room for misunderstanding.
The principal subject is Anwar Congo, leader of an elite death squad. He can look grandfatherly in one shot, hard in the next. He loves Hollywood gangsters. He says the word "gangster" means "free man." Anwar boasts of designing ways to kill people with thin wires to keep blood from spurting. But he's also having nightmares about his victims.
On the other hand, a former colleague of his named Adi Zulkadry has no patience for guilt. He's a relativist. War crimes, he says, are defined by the winners. He refuses to be branded a war criminal.
Both men demonstrate interrogation, torture and killing, in one case with a man playing someone resembling his own murdered stepfather. A re-enactment of a massacre and the burning of a village features women and children who can't stop sobbing long after the director has yelled cut.
Most of what we see is bizarre to the point of trippiness. But The Act of Killing documents a higher reality. By allowing murderers to write, direct and perform, Oppenheimer not only puts the horror in the present tense, he also shows you how these men viewed their actions, the myths they told themselves and one another. It's one of the most lucid portraits of evil I've ever seen. +