As the credits roll at the end of Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing, one thing you'll notice is that the production manager is listed as anonymous. So are the line producers and the assistant director. Also, the makeup artists and the entire costume department. It doesn't stop there. A total of 41 crew members decided they didn't want their names on this project. "Anonymous" even turns up twice under "special thanks."
This is a dangerous film to be involved in.
This is a dangerous film, period.
In 1965 a failed coup in Indonesia led to a communist purge in which an estimate of over 500,000 people were tortured and executed. Along with other anti-communist youth militias, one group known as the "Movie Theater Gangsters" got involved with the purges and carried out countless arrests, interrogations and murders. In 2005, Oppenheimer, a Texas filmmaker, and his crew met and collaborated with this gang—now wealthy old men who have never been charged with any crime—in order to recreate their exploits on film. The Act of Killing documents this process, and the result is one of the most powerful and revealing works of cinema I have ever seen.
The opening of Oppenheimer's film introduces us to a crew of old murder squad bosses reminiscing about the 1965 purges. The brutality of their honesty is more striking than the brutalities they describe. They laugh and joke about the people they killed, without a twinge of guilt or shame. The conversations are relaxed. At moments they seem to throw off sparks of pride. The mechanical accounts detail the best techniques for killing someone as casually as a golfer explains his backswing.
But over the course of the film there is an unraveling within these men. As they reenact the murders, review their daily footage and, most significantly, play the roles of their victims, something starts to crack in the façade. This is particularly true for the big boss, Anwar Congo, whose inner journey from start to finish is both catalyzed by and revealed through the documentary.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet there's the pivotal moment where a group of actors do a thinly veiled reenactment of the king's assassination in front of his murderer, Hamlet's uncle. Hamlet's intention here is to provoke his uncle's guilt. The scene has become emblematic of the reflective power of art, the kind that forces us to confront aspects of ourselves that we'd rather leave buried and rationalized. If the purpose of some art is analgesic, other art is major surgery. Like Hamlet, The Act of Killing is a chillingly cogent example of the latter.
The humorous and surreal aspects of the film provide a welcome break from its general intensity. Anwar's persistent nightmares inspire him to stage colorful and abstract fantasy settings.
"The communists have become ghosts, haunting me," he admits. But Anwar continues to blame his suffering not on any moral culpability, but on practical mistakes. "Why didn't I close his eyes?" he bemoans, recalling a victim, and in this way he assigns the source of his torment to flaws in his method. The resulting sequences are bizarre dreamscapes of phantoms taking revenge, girls dancing out of the mouth of a giant fish and a whimsical, eerie music video in which Anwar's victims award him with a medal and thank him for sending them to heaven.
The Act of Killing is not easy to watch. I found myself squirming in my seat most of the time. But its true artistry takes place in its confident pacing and steady layering, as the gradual extrication of Anwar's psyche to the truth about himself threatens to dawn. The Act of Killing is altogether captivating, entertaining enough that I felt guilty for being entertained, and, okay, I'm just going to say it: This film could spark a revolution in the way we view the function and value of cinema. There's a trope in science fiction stories in which a superpower or technology delivers justice by making criminals feel the very suffering they inflicted on others. If such a technique ever materializes in the real world, The Act of Killing might be judged in the future less as a film and more as an early and intrepid prototype.
The Act of Killing screens at The Roxy Theater Thu., Aug. 22–Sun., Aug. 25, at 7 and 9:30 PM nightly. See theroxytheater.org.