A few years back, a film, The Act of Killing (2012), ran at a London cinema for 52 weeks. Such a run is unusual for any film: even more so for a documentary feature about Indonesia. The film’s subject matter revolves around one man, Anwar Congo, who is convivial, charming even, and with real screen presence. He also happens to be a mass murderer.

The Act of Killing narrowly missed out on 2013 Best Oscar for a Documentary Feature. Due to the politicking and campaigning around the nominated Oscar contenders, the best films often don’t get the awards. The Act of Killing may have missed out on Hollywood’s greatest accolade but nevertheless it collected a fair few awards along the way, as well as much critical acclaim, regularly appearing in critics’ lists of top films for 2013.

The film’s plot consists in the exhumation of events that took place in 1965. That was the year a military coup in Indonesia brought to power a right wing dictatorship. At that time, the regime’s opposition was principally the local communist party. Subsequent to the coup, communists were tortured and killed in their thousands, often by paramilitary groups working with the full connivance of the country’s new rulers and the Indonesian military. This involvement is briefly explained at the commencement of the film, but this is not a historical documentary about what took place over 50 years ago. Instead, unnervingly, the audience is confronted with the smiling faces of those who not only planned and organized these killings, but who also carried them out.

At first the charming Congo looks like someone straight out of the Buena Vista Social Club (1999). Yet, he could not be more removed from that laid-back group of ageing—and harmless—Havana musicians featured in Wim Wenders’ uplifting Oscar-nominated documentary. Instead, Congo is shown to be an ageing “gangster” (the name given locally to paramilitaries) whose face, and its superficial serenity, masks a remembrance of horrors.

Thereafter, for three hours, the audience journeys with Congo and his accomplices back in time to their acts of sadistic murder. The Act of Killing is not for the faint-hearted. It is not just the victims who are being tortured in this film; the audience too must suffer vicariously as it is ushered into the presence of evil men to hear their actions talked of as banalities, as things done long ago and of little consequence, with any victim merely an historical footnote.

For all that, The Act of Killing is consistently gripping, unforgettable even, and with the exception of its sequel, The Look of Silence (2014), there is no other film quite like it. The reason for this is that The Act of Killing is one of the most affecting and yet casual representations of evil seen on screen. This is all the more so, as the perpetrators of the crimes revel in telling of how they killed people; what tortures they imposed on their victims, and how mercilessly they behaved throughout. For example, they talk of stabbing all the Chinese communists found in their local neighborhood. Not one was spared, not even the father of one of the killers’ then-girlfriend. That particular passage in the film concludes with Congo and his fellow killers saying they would do it all again. Watching them on screen, even from a distance of a half-century, one doesn’t doubt this sentiment for a minute.

What is perhaps even more troubling viewing the film today is the seeming ongoing collusion in 2012 of current government officials. The same officials today turn up at paramilitary rallies where even now these government officials still talk of eliminating communists, with the former mass murderers at their side in grinning attendance. The paramilitary group to which Congo and his accomplices belonged and which was involved in the events of 1965 still exists today. At the filmed rally, its current leader, a diminutive man dressed in flamboyant military attire, ticks every box for a dictator from central casting. Think Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Preening, vain, and misogynous—the paramilitary leader’s language is as crude as his political methods. His organization’s modus operandi is racketeering and murder, and yet its leaders continue to strut around in a semi-official capacity at rallies and far beyond. During this sequence one wonders why this leader and his gang are not behind bars. It is as if the characters featured in Goodfellas (1990) were running law and order in New York City.

The filmmaker behind The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer. He is a shrewd operator both on and off screen. Obviously he had the trust of the misfits and psychopaths whom he films. They trusted him to the point that from their own mouths came the evidence to incriminate them before the world. But this film is even stranger than that. It contains something else: a film within a film. Dr. Oppenheimer enticed Congo and his gang to be part of a filmed recreation of the ways and means they employed to kill their opponents: thus, the film’s title “The Act of Killing.”

This recreation proves to be a psychological—and cinematic—masterstroke. For, as the mindless violence, the brutality, sadism, and torture are more and more displayed again, those who are its “actors” are increasingly forced to confront what they did, and what they have hidden from their consciences for nearly 50 years.

Incredibly, Congo seems genuinely to believe that the “film” he is making could be for “all the family.” One of the work’s most disturbing scenes is when Congo asks his two grandchildren to come and watch a scene being played back on a television monitor. It is a scene that Congo describes as “grand papa being tortured.” The children’s initial bafflement turns into stunned stillness as they watch, and, eventually, they are allowed to retreat far from the monitor by an increasingly confused Congo. But it is precisely these scenes that initiate a process of self-awareness on Congo’s part as to the nature of what he had been engaged in, and the cost not just to his victims but also to the perpetrator. At this point, he looks beyond the camera lens and asks the director if he thought he, Congo, had “sinned”? The silence on the other end is deafening. At that, Congo starts to cry.

One wonders about the subconscious motivations of the “gangsters” who took part in The Act of Killing. Superficially, they all seemed to crave the spotlight: Congo, in particular, desiring some sort of belated movie career. After a fashion, he got his wish, although, one suspects, that by the end he found himself playing a part he would rather not have had. As the film concludes one sees a man damaged physically and mentally—he has problems sleeping and suffers panic attacks—as well as morally, given he no longer understands what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps, he cannot afford to understand.

At one point, there is a nighttime fishing scene with Congo lamenting the darkness all around him seeing it as foreshadowing the end of the world. His world is one of darkness, shot through with the cries and staring eyes of his victims, the memories of which, by his own admission, will not leave him alone. He wanted a place in the spotlight but now realizes that the spotlight is one chasing a haunted man.

Cinema can neither forgive nor heal, nor absolve, it simply records and presents, for all the world to see and pass judgment. Congo and his confederates may be beyond justice now, but there is a Justice beyond even this world that none can escape.

In The Act of Killing, we see no forgiveness asked for, no remorse expressed, no sympathy offered from the featured “gangsters” for their crimes. And as a result, we witness what is wrong with the world, namely, sin and its consequences, and what comes in its wake if not repented: the earthly start of an eternity of suffering.


Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (September/October 2019).

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The featured image is a detail from the title still of The Act of Killing (2012).

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