This Academy Award-nominated film was strange, surreal, deeply disturbing, and hard to watch. Synopses do not do it justice, but you can watch it on Netflix, or free on YouTube.
It's a documentary about the 1965-66 "purge" of communists in Indonesia, in which somewhere between half a million and a million people were slaughtered by death squads.
Obviously, there is a lot of historical and political baggage surrounding this (the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, has explicitly called out Western governments for their role in the slaughter), but The Act of Killing is not really a study of geopolitics or ideology. "Communists" was just shorthand for "Anyone in our way" (many of the victims were ethnic Chinese, targeted for that fact alone), and this is quite evident in listening to the former killers talk about them.
Indeed, this is what I found most fascinating about the film. Oppenheimer got former death squad leaders and current government officials to talk, on camera, about what happened. The main figures are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, who rose from two-bit gangsters to the most feared men in Indonesia. It's chilling just how blase they and their compatriots are about their crimes — there is no equivocating, moralizing, or tempering. They killed "communists" even though it's clear that they didn't really care whether or not anyone was actually a communist. They speak gleefully, even pridefully, about their killing methods, about their brutality, about profiting. One former gangster talks wistfully about how much he enjoyed finding 14-year-old girls among the villagers to be tortured/killed for being "communists." This provokes spontaneous, knowing sighs of camaraderie around the room from the other men.
As you can see in the above trailer, The Act of Killing is by turns chilling, grotesque, and comical. Horrible men are filmed saying the most horrible things, without remorse. There is another scene where they cruise through the markets and extort money from the Chinese shop owners, bluntly demanding they simply hand over cash from their tills while joking with them as if they are buddies. The frozen smiles on the faces of the shopkeepers, as they are filmed being forced to make nice with murderous thugs, was perhaps not as disturbing as the lurid, loving accounts of rapes and beheadings, but it was the same banal, rapacious evil, displayed with the same proud swagger.
Watching them, I was most interested in trying to determine whether these were men literally without a conscience — psychopaths — or men living under a vastly different moral code in atrocities are justified. It's a question that repeatedly fascinates me — what is "evil"?
Congo, in contrast with Zulkadry, seemed to care about his legacy and whether he would be judged righteous by history. There is a final scene in which he rather melodramatically appears to come to the startling realization that his victims suffered, that maybe, possibly, the things he did were... wrong. o..O
And yet, how can one believe that after all these years, this crisis of conscience was a genuine revelation brought about by thoughts he'd never had before? Does he truly have such a compartmentalized mind? Are we watching cogitive dissonance overwhelm him? Is he an old man now realizing he has regrets? Or is it an act, staged like all his other moments? I'm genuinely unsure, though my cynicism tends to be strong here - there are too many other scenes in the film where he treats the blood on his hands as a matter of pride, or fodder for humor. My suspicion is that we're watching someone as evil as Saddam or Stalin, but who thinks now he can craft his public image for the better without denying or apologizing for anything. But his psychology fascinates me.
To really appreciate the over-the-top batshit surrealism of this documentary, I recommend you watch the culmination of Anwar Congo's "artistic vision." This scene, choreographed to the soundtrack "Born Free," was his idea. Unfortunately this was the only YouTube clip I could find and the subtitles aren't in English, but the two actors playing guillotined victims of Congo are thanking him for killing them and sending them to heaven...
This film is full of images, people, and statements that will mess with your head.