In an eerie and breathtaking scene from director Joshua Oppenheimer’s profound documentary The Act of Killing, a man tries but is unable to vomit. His name is Anwar Congo, and he is one of many Indonesian perpetrators responsible for his country’s communist genocide in 1965. He is the main subject of this new film, attempting to regurgitate on the rooftop where he murdered dozens, and was responsible for mass killing.
“He’s trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, almost to find that nothing comes out. It’s almost as if he is the ghost, because he is his past. He will never escape from it,” said Oppenheimer at a recent roundtable interview.
Over one million were killed in Indonesia during an era of extreme military and paramilitary rule. The atrocities are little known in the west, and the victims were not all Communist, including labor leaders, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. The regime saw leaders like Congo implementing sadistic methods of torture and killing, and who still, like the Indonesian government, enjoy impunity.
Oppenheimer’s film, which started as an exploration into this impunity and the victims, turned its focus instead toward these violent perpetrators. The documentary has become controversial, however, because Oppenheimer has allowed his subjects to re-enact their killings nearly fifty years later, restaging their crimes for a movie audience. It is at once nightmarish and bizarre, an amalgam requiring the director’s intimacy with former ruthless killers.
“I have two basic rules: one, that I will never forget the moral condemnation of these crimes; and the second was more difficult, which is that I will never forget the humanity of the men I am filming,” Oppenheimer said. “How are they boasting? Why are they boasting? Why do they want to be seen?”
The film, executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, is most striking in how Anwar and his friends decide to craft these re-enactments. Living in Medan, in North Sumatra, these men once considered themselves movie gangsters, part of mobs outside of local theaters. They were inspired by American films: John Wayne Westerns, mafia thrillers, and even Elvis Pressley flicks. The acts of violence on screen became inspirational for these men. Throughout the film, “gangster,” they say, means “free man.” And “fear is the capital of gangsters,” said Oppenheimer. “You have nothing if they’re not afraid. You can’t go into a market and steal money from people if the people are not afraid of you.”
On that same roof, Anwar shows Oppenheimer how he would take metal wire to choke his victims, a much quicker, “less bloody” death. Before getting sentimental with his personal victims’ ghosts, Anwar escapes outward remorse by explaining he would never have killed with the white pants he wears in front of the camera.
The re-enactments of killing are filmed in a series of incongruous scenes, ranging from noir-like atmospheres to hyper-sensualized and colored “fever dreams,” as Oppenheimer calls them, capturing the movies’ immense hold on Anwar and their inspirational, exploitative power. They evoke a campy, soap-opera sensibility, filmed in part by helping hands from Indonesian film crews and makeup teams. Are films also to blame for his actual violence?
“I don’t think the message of this film is that violent movies cause violent behavior. I filmed thirty death squad leaders who would bring whole busloads of people down to a river who would cut their heads off with the help of the army. And they were not watching films first,” said Oppenheimer. “They were killing many more people than Anwar probably. I think the act of killing is a traumatic act that we somehow need to distance ourselves from. And Anwar, although he says he got methods of killing from movies, what he really got was a way of distancing himself from escaping reality.”
Speaking Indonesian and being fully receptive to Anwar and his film crew, Oppenheimer creates a space for Anwar to reflect on his actions, sometimes observed in long silent pauses. Anwar comes off as a man with no conscience, but as Anwar re-lives his experiences, the audience’s perception of him as such erodes with time. This is a personal, semi-cathartic journey, but it is also a universal awakening to both the crimes committed and how first world countries depend on unjust hierarchies like Indonesia’s.
“The biggest escapist fantasy that we all inherit is the Star Wars morality, it underpins almost all of our storytelling. The world is divided into protagonists and antagonists, good guys and bad guys. In fact we’re all much closer to perpetrators than we’d like to think. Everything you buy, every article of clothing touching our bodies, is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us,” he said.
“They’re all working in factories, located in places where there’s been massive political violence where perpetrators have won and have built regimes of fear and oppression so that the people who make everything we buy can’t effectively struggle. The human and environmental cost is incorporated in the price tag that we pay for, which means we depend on Anwar and his friends for everyday living.”
It’s almost as unsettling an image as seeing Anwar and another former death squad partner Adi reinterpret a torture scene in full makeup and costume. Adi throughout the film quells his guilt through an apathetic lens toward his past. “If there’s anyone close to a psychopath in the film it’s Adi,” said Oppenheimer. “He has successfully killed off his own conscience, or maybe he never had one and that’s why he was never able to do it.”
Anwar, meanwhile, suffers from nightmares in the film, haunted by specific instances from his past, yet is still an emblem of heroic duty for the Pancasila Youth, the current Indonesian paramilitary group composed of three million members. The paradox jumps at you like the film, viscerally charged in its binary depictions of young and old, fantasy and reality, and its often blurred lines.
“Anwar’s conscience was the motor for this whole process, and in fact he’s running away. Every re-enactment is a denial of the moral meaning of what he’s done,” said Oppenheimer.
“All of the fakeness only serves to make the real more horrifying.”
Aside from exploring how perpetrators like Anwar can commit mass acts of killing, Oppenheimer’s documentary is a telling political expose, which is why the film is triggering change in how Indonesians talk about their country’s past.
“If they are genuinely the heroes they claim to be, then this film should be showing these men enjoying the fruits of the heroism in old age,” says Oppenheimer. “But in fact they are actually destroyed by what they have done. In the case of Anwar, he’s ravaged, in the case of Adi, a hollow shell of a human being.”