“History is written by winners, and we won.” A morbid act of justification and pride, this line uttered by the subject of the documentary The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer takes a look at the genocide that befell Indonesia in the 1960’s, specifically focusing on the those that carried out the war crimes by getting them on camera to assist in a Hollywood re-creation of their participation in the mass murder of 1 million supposed communist citizens after the military overthrew the government.
Oppenheimer has somehow persuaded these men, the mass killers of their fellow countrymen, to help in recreating scenes of death, some that they themselves have orchestrated, to the delight of adding realism to a movie being made about the tumultuous time in Indonesia’s history. Anwar and his friends are the unwitting villains in a movie about their actions, what they have done and how terrifyingly unrepentant they are about what they have done. It’s is something to behold, watching Anwar and his friends chat about the deeds they have done in the name of the military government. They reminisce about interrogations, leading paramilitary troopers to slaughter the labeled communist members of their country, and they do all this as if they are part of a fraternity, enjoying a casual drink at the yacht club.
That is the true power behind the documentary, which Oppenheimer has found real life villains to showcase, something that Hollywood wishes they could come up with. Congo becomes the de facto star of the movie, something he relishes as he helps re-enact his strangulation murders, going into the gory, specific details he has honed during his time acting as the right arm of the military. Seeing this now frail looking, white haired individual living a life of luxury, walking down the street and almost being treated like famous Hollywood actor should get the ire up of the audience. It certainly was infuriating to me to see someone like this being held in high regard, but then I think about the line “History is written by winners, and we won.” In a sense, Oppenheimer garishly shows the audience what it is like to be the winner of a horrific conflict, how those who carried out the malicious, heinous acts are able to justify it all to themselves. Congo becomes the embodiment of all the things wrong in conflict, the indoctrination and the justifications they tell themselves and everyone in order to absolve them of the crimes they committed. In Congo’s mind, they won the battle, thus all his evil deeds are justified and recreating the scenes in a glorified Hollywood manner only adds to that justification.
Anwar Congo isn’t alone though in being an evil character. While watching the documentary, I felt that Oppenheimer had to commit his own evil deeds to get this made. Sure the bigger monster of the film is Anwar and his cronies, but Joshua Oppenheimer wanted those men to recreate their acts, fake as they may be, with the men, women, and children of the country as extras. Mind you, this genocide took place almost fifty years ago, but that is a scabbed wound that being opened and relived for some of the people forced to be extras. They might not have experienced the atrocities first hand, but there is the lingering aftermath of the ordeal that is still all too real. It’s this sort of exploitation that might turn a few people off from the movie, watching the extras cry and be terrified that something that happened in their past might actually happen again.
But the acts of the director to have these scenes unfold again, with Anwar and his friends giving detailed instructions, isn’t without a sense of scope. These acts could happen again in their country as the paramilitary troops still stomp around the country, flexing their fearsome might to the populace. The government is still holding right wing rallies, the newspaper and politicians are sweeping the past under the rug, never bringing any sort of justice to the ones who committed the acts of genocide. The fear in the citizens and extras involved with the Hollywood scenes of murder, executions, and rape are all too real, knowing that they are under the boot and what has happened in the past can happen again.
The Act of Killing is certainly one of the most powerful documentaries to have come out this year. A certain contender come awards season, the hard hitting expose on the “heroes” of war crimes and the reasoning they give to live their lives justifying the acts they did. There are moments when the crushing reality of what they did seeps through, almost making them question the morality of the decision. Anwar certainly has a feeling that what he did isn’t right, but he did it because his military asked him to, to be their hero and hand. While the documentary is exposing the truth about these free war criminals, it’s a character study of the self-justifying actions of the evil men who live with what they did. It’s not often you get to peer into the mind and reasoning of evil people, let alone see them truly revel and reveal who they really are to the world. They might be safe in their country, where their actions are rewritten in the history books to be justifiable, but that hubris and vain display of moral corruption has made them infamous to the whole world.
Rating: 5 out of 5
By Nick Guzman