PRINT Summer 2013


Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and dancers. Image: Drafthouse Films.

There are people like me everywhere in the world.
—Anwar Congo

SUMANTRAN SLAUGHTERER Anwar Congo and his rotund sidekick, Herman Koto, the latter heavily rouged in a turquoise muumuu and showboating chapeau, sway and shimmy in a sunlit forest, baptized by a burbling waterfall as a chorus line of Balinese beauties in gold lamé gowns slowly vogue their way out of the mouth of a giant concrete carp, everyone exhorted by a zealous offscreen choreographer to exude “peace! Happiness!” and to “smile!” The appalling sight of a war criminal, responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of his countrymen, happily dancing in a kitsch spectacle that both expiates and celebrates his mass executions—his victims thank him for sending them to heaven—provides the opening sequence (and structuring motif) of Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking new documentary, The Act of Killing. Anwar has, at the director’s invitation, engineered this gaudy production himself, seemingly influenced by the Cecil B. DeMille biblical epics he and his henchmen favored at the time they participated in anti-Communist massacres (the mid-’60s) and by tourist advertisements for their still-terrorized country—all that’s missing is the tagline “My Indonesia: Just a Smile Away” to cap their dream project of making a movie about their genocidal exploits. Oppenheimer has granted the murderers their wish, giving them free rein to tell their stories, but any celebrity the fantasy-fed duo achieve by reenacting their past comes at considerable cost. In the eyes of impressed compatriots, Anwar finally receives the fame he deserves—“You’re a star now!” cries a newspaper publisher, himself a vicious perpetrator, when Anwar visits his office, camera crew in tow—while, for the viewer aghast at the bloodthirsty glee with which the criminals restage their “acts of killing,” the aged executioner attains little but infamy.

Oppenheimer had initially set out to make a portrait of the victims and survivors of the Indonesian government campaign against Communists—a loose rubric that included union members, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese—after a military coup in 1965, headed by General Suharto, led to President Sukarno’s ouster the following year. Abetted by an American administration obsessed with the threat of Mao’s China, the “domino effect” in Asia, and the popularity of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and cheered by the American press, the massacre of more than a million was carried out not only by the army but also by civilian recruits, including “gangsters” who scalped tickets at movie theaters and modeled themselves after their heroes: Marlon Brando, John Wayne, and, especially, Elvis Presley, whose musicals put them in the euphoric mood for “killing happily.” As threats and refusals stymied Oppenheimer’s original plan to document the tales of the victims, The Act of Killing inexorably turned into its opposite: a film that devotes itself totally to the memories of the victimizers, movie-mad thugs known as preman bioskop, whose animus toward leftists was aggravated by the PKI’s proposed boycott of American movies and whose methods of torture and killing—especially the use of wire for garroting—were inspired by Hollywood crime films and westerns. Because the Indonesian regime officially championed the preman as vanquishers in a patriotic struggle against Communism—they slaughtered to the “sound of trumpets,” to invoke the film’s preliminary quotation from Voltaire—men like Anwar, who led the most notorious North Sumatran death troop, the Frog Squad, have long been accustomed to bragging about their deeds, which made them prime prey for Oppenheimer’s project. Unrepentant, selfmythologizing, brazenly casual in their recitations and re-creations of barbaric acts, Anwar and cohort do not realize they are parading their pathology, confusing the abhorrent with the heroic, as their country has long taught them to do. It hardly matters if the film ends up on television or the big screen, Anwar avers, but it must be shown “so in the future people will remember,” a sentiment that echoes the rationale for every other record of holocaust and mass annihilation, leaving us agape at a moral vacuity so utter that it distorts ethics into evil, twists words and phrases into boggling travesty. “Freeman” (vrijman, in the colonial Dutch), government officials and paramilitary leaders repeatedly inform us, is the root of the word preman (slang for “gangster”), and these “freemen” want only to “enjoy their life in their own style,” as one right-wing general remarks, from the comfort of a golf course, an existence he defines as “Relax and Rolex.”

That Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers of The Act of Killing hardly surprises, given the film’s disquieting satire born of its subjects’ penchant for self-incrimination and its use of reenactment as a means to undermine faith in (ostensible) truth. Oppenheimer calls the film “a documentary of the imagination,” and as he encourages Anwar, Herman, and friends to stage their memories of anti-Communist torture and mayhem, The Act of Killing becomes a grotesque study in the mise-en-scène of psychosis, with such movie-ish matters as costumes, makeup, and dramatic style—the “act” of the title takes on an increasingly performative meaning—of primary importance to the butchers-become-auteurs. “We have to reenact this properly,” Anwar worries in an early sequence set on a rooftop where he once tortured and killed and now cha-chas a little before gaily demonstrating how he devised a wire garrote to minimize bloodletting. Anwar’s attention to image—inspecting a photo of his young self, he notes, “I’m wearing a plaid shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes. See how ‘elite’ I am?”—translates to a concern for his screen appearance. The vain executioner, who sometimes bears an unsettling resemblance to Nelson Mandela, repeatedly inspects his bridge of false teeth, dyes his white hair jet-black, and critiques his inappropriate clothing: “I look like I am dressed for a picnic!” he cries in self-reproach over his outfit of loud green shirt and showy white pants, and murmurs, “I never would have worn white,” as he watches footage shot on the rooftop—“I wore dark colors.” Indeed, color becomes another perverse marker of the aesthetics of Indonesian fascism in the film: the teal and cerise getups favored by the butterball, tranny-tending Herman; the mustard suit and sunburst shirt or the hot-pink cowboy hat Anwar chooses to signify his role as Big Boss, and the multihued ceramic blooms that run riot on the headrest of his favorite chair; and, most chillingly, the orangeand- black fatigues worn by the ubiquitous troops of the paramilitary Pancasila movement, thuggish supporters of the regime, extolled as pillars of the nation by government officials. (Strangely, The Act of Killing doesn’t remark on the bitter irony of the Pancasila name, whose origins lie in an old Javanese phrase indicating a belief in a just and civilized humanity, democracy, and social justice for all Indonesians, promoted by Sukarno as the country’s philosophical foundation—another of the linguistic inversions in the film’s upside-down world.)

Oppenheimer’s study of the depredations of fantasy, in which American movies shape a campaign of violence that in turn is restaged decades later as a crime-film-cum-comedy—Herman camps it up as a pregnant “Communist bitch” who will give birth to a little leftist unless she is dispatched—gets progressively more disturbing (and, at times, grindingly repetitious) as Anwar and company prepare for the ultimate reenactment, that of the Pancasila Youth’s 1965 massacre of the villagers of Kampung Kolam. On set, one leader waxes nostalgic about his liberty to rape pretty girls, preferably fourteenyear- olds, “especially back then,” he wistfully recalls, “when we were the law.” Herman crows into his bullhorn that “the whole world will see this!” as the deputy minister of youth and sport arrives to help direct the harrowing sequence. “Wow! All the killers are here!” the dignitary exclaims before encouraging the crowd of Pancasila “extras” not to let any Communists escape. Oppenheimer alters his own mode of presentation for the carnage, exchanging crisply shot long takes for an impressionistically soft-focus, dissolving montage, with the sound suppressed to increase the horror. The trauma of the staging is too much for some—Herman admonishes his little girl, who can’t stop crying, that movie stars cease their waterworks the moment “Cut!” is called—while the increasingly contrite Anwar expresses sympathy for the village’s children, their futures blighted by butchery: “They will curse us for the rest of their lives,” he muses.

The film’s accrual of the incredible—a perky talkshow host on national television enthuses with her Pancasila guests that “yes, God hates Communists!”; Herman runs for parliament as a defender of workers’ rights; Anwar invites his wee grandson to watch footage of his own faked strangulation—reveals a country inured to its cataclysmic past. No truth-and-reconciliation inquiries for the Indonesian butchers who retreat into luxurious sanctuaries (high-end shopping malls, villas glistening with vitrines of first-edition crystal) or into the realm of fantasy. (One wonders how embellished are their accounts of the past, distorted by memory, imagination, and bravado, and what age Herman was almost a half century ago, when the crimes were committed.) The great Cambodian director Rithy Panh previously employed reenactment to confront the henchmen of Pol Pot’s regime, his unyielding camera staring into the blank faces of the guilty in S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003). Oppenheimer’s staggering film achieves no such plangency, much as it attempts to shift from an often callously ironic tone to a graver and more nuanced approach, fashioning a redemptive narrative for Anwar, who gradually relinquishes his role as metteur en scène for that of martyr. Contrary to the song “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” emitted by a flapping fish figurine—egregiously bridged to a shot of Anwar asleep—the ever-frailer squad leader becomes troubled by his role in both the events of 1965–66 and their alacritous re-creation in Oppenheimer’s film. His guilt first arrives only to be transmogrified into a movie-style ghost—“You feel haunted because your mind is weak,” his old buddy-in-crime Adi Zulkadry advises—but as Anwar registers the horrific fates of others (such as his neighbor Suryono, who laughs through his painful account of burying his stepfather, killed in the “Crush the Chinese” campaign), he begins to agonize over his own culpability and how the film will appear to others. As difficult as the film sometimes makes it to ascertain the chronology of events, one conjectures that Oppenheimer reversed the order of the final two sequences to make it appear as though Anwar, dry-heaving with disgust in the darkness after pondering whether he has “sinned,” is finally on the path to enlightenment.

The Act of Killing, which appears in New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 18 and 19, opens in New York on July 19 and in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, on July 26.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.