The Act of Killing is a documentary by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer on the Indonesian genocide of 1965—both its victims and prime movers. The latter of these—who believe they are creating a propaganda film for the military dictatorship behind the atrocity—act out the tortures and killings they themselves conducted in the massacre. Most consequently, the killers not only role-play as themselves, but as their victims.
It’s safe to say there has never been a film like this before, and, as Oppenheimer describes in his conversation with philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, it almost assuredly sets a precedent as a social experiment, as well.
Because the military dictatorship “still hold(s) the monopoly on power”, the film’s principal subjects in Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry and others are able to speak about the genocide (and everything else) with impunity. This dictatorship, which overthrew the PKI (or Communist Party of Indonesia), is still at rule today, meaning the only substantial threat to Congo and the others comes in the form of their pasts. As such, they can be heard throughout The Act of Killing waging a war of words against their own doubts in order to inoculate themselves psychologically.
Zulkadry in particular (as well as being a killer) is a semantics specialist when it comes to his past acts—never neglecting to remind us, for example, that the word “gangster” in Indonesian means “free man.” (Similarly, an argument arises between two of these men on whether “sadistic” and “cruel” are synonyms.) Zulkadry needs these cognitive gymnastics, it seems, given the bloodshed he participated in, as well as the way in which both he and Congo are prone to hiccup—seemingly without intent—into plain admissions of their own denial; how, amazingly, they’re able to confess the full extent of their moral perversions without any direct acknowledgement.
“What unfolds (in the dramatizations) is this kind of fever dream about escapism, and guilt,” Oppenheimer explains. “Each time Anwar watches the horror, watches his previous dramatization, we can see that he’s terribly pained, but as you (Harris) put it very nicely, there’s nowhere for those emotions to go except further denials. So he proposes what he considers to be a kind of aesthetic improvement, as though if he can fix the scene aesthetically, he can somehow dispel the pain and fix his past morally.”
So removed are these men from the harm they’ve done that artistic imperfections in their “film”—whether in costumes, props, acting, et cetera—bother them more than the gruesome acts they portray. The surreal elements of the film—the mafioso cinema tropes, the ludicrous costumes, the dance numbers set against exaggeratedly bucolic backdrops—are, to me, its capitalization of their cognitive discord.
One of the film’s hardest-to-watch scenes involves a grass-hut village burned to the ground, not only because the fire is real and the scale increased significantly over prior scenes (tens of members from the Pemuda Pancasila join the “cast” for this shoot), but because it involves real women and children in the roles of the victims.
After “cut!” is called and the scene ends with self-congratulatory applause, one of the women is unable to rise to her feet, whether from exhaustion or stress isn’t quite clear. Many of the children can also still be seen and heard crying, and the camera (Oppenheimer’s) settles on Koto as he consoles one of the girls. “Febby,” Koto says, wiping tears from the girl’s cheeks, “your acting was great, but stop crying. You’re embarrassing me. Film stars only cry for a moment.”
That the problem doesn’t lie in her acting inside the scene or out of it is an invisibility for Koto in both, and what’s terrifying about his blindness is not—as might have been once—whether it’s chosen or not. It’s the fact that there may, for him, no longer be a difference.