The opening scene of The Act of Killing raises the first of many startling questions: What on earth does a line of beautiful female dancers, emerging from a huge fish sculpture beside a picturesque lake -- in a scene that looks like it belongs in a Fellini movie -- have to do with the massacre of more than 1 million Indonesians in 1965? The second shocking question comes soon after and continues to be raised throughout the film: Why are the men in this documentary, all of them self-proclaimed paramilitary "gangsters" who carried out hundreds, if not thousands, of these murders, often laughing?
The Act of Killing lets the killers explain their actions in an unusual way. Director Joshua Oppenheimer takes viewers on an unsettling journey through the history and psychology of men who killed without justice or remorse, who not only prospered from their deeds, but remain in power to this day. With obstinate pride, the film's subjects lay bare the moral imagination that makes them heroes in the national myth. In a mind-bending twist, they do so by making their own movie about their brutal deeds in the style of the American westerns, musicals and gangster films they love -- playing both victims and perpetrators. There is even a spiritual message in their tale -- which is the cue for those dancing maidens.
When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters ("free men," as they called themselves) who controlled the black market in movie tickets to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than 1 million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar killed hundreds of people with his own hands. Borrowing a bloodless technique from mafia movies, he strangled his victims with a piece of wire, which meant less cleaning up afterwards. It also meant years of night terrors for the killer.
Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.
There wasn't even a presumption of guilt on the part of the victims to justify the killings. Anwar and longtime friend Adi Zulkadry emphasize the helplessness that overtook the people they routinely abducted, tortured and killed in grisly ways--often inspired by Hollywood gangster movies. They freely admit they killed people without mercy and on the slightest pretexts. They didn't just kill alleged communists; they attempted to eradicate whole strata of Indonesian society, including its Chinese immigrants. This is part of the myth of today's "free" Indonesia -- and the enduring celebrity of the executioners.
Why would Anwar and young men like him so readily take to mass murder? In The Act of Killing, he and some of the men recall that that one reason they sided with the military was because the elected government had banned American movies, a source of revenue for them. The media also played a part. Newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik not only identified who should be killed, but felt, "as a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them." According to one ex-paramilitary, "The key to not feeling guilty is finding the right excuse."
There are hints about the relationship of the military to the paramilitaries, which remain powerful forces today. The group Pancasila Youth, which played a conspicuous role in the 1965 massacres, is now the country's largest paramilitary organization, with 3 million members. Its gatherings regularly draw government officials, who extol Indonesia's idea of the "gangster," who is seen as an archetypal "free man." "Gangsters do what the government can't," says the vice president of Indonesia, to great applause, at a Pancasila Youth rally. Indonesia is an environment where Anwar Congo can be celebrated as a "renowned killer" by a provincial governor.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Indonesia has entered an era when children of the executed are beginning to speak out. "All this talk of human rights pisses me off," says Anwar, and then more chillingly, "Everywhere in the world there are people like me." Hence his need to make a movie to solidify the historical record of his group's "patriotic struggle."
It is in this movie-within-a-movie that the deepest drama of The Act of Killing unfolds. Desperate to convince themselves that what they did was right, the killers dramatize their crimes, from attacking entire villages to offering a victim one last cigarette before he dies. But Anwar, who has already been disturbed by bad dreams, is waking to increasingly worsening nightmares as the film progresses--he and his friends dramatize those nightmares with costumed characters playing the ghosts of those he killed. He even has the crew fashion mannequins of himself as a dead man -- murdered by his own victims -- to recreate one of his fever dreams. Yet after a day's work, he impishly calls his grandchildren in to watch grandpa on television before they go to sleep.
During a break in filming, Anwar's neighbor, a paramilitary member helping him direct the re-enactments, tells a story from his childhood. "There was a shopkeeper," he says. "He was the only Chinese person in the area. . . . He was my stepfather. At 3 a.m., someone knocked on our door. They called my dad. Mom said, 'It's dangerous! Don't go out.' But he went out. We heard him shout, 'Help!' Then, silence. They took him away. . . . We found his body under an oil drum. . . . Nobody dared help us. We buried him like a goat next to the main road. Just me and my grandfather." He smiles while tears flow down his cheeks. "It's only input for the film," he apologizes. "I promise I'm not criticizing you." The men listen respectfully, but then explain they can't use every story "or the film will never end." One adds, "Maybe we can work it in, or it can motivate the actors."
On another day, Anwar stars on a talk show celebrating the genocide, while the cheery host beams, "Anwar Congo and his friends developed a new, more humane system of exterminating communists," and encourages members of the studio audience to applaud--which they gladly do.
Anwar comes closest to a breakthrough in empathy when he plays, and then watches himself playing, the part of one of the people he tortured and strangled to death with wire. He believes he can feel his victim's terror and even sheds a tear. From behind the camera, director Joshua Oppenheimer points out, "What your victims felt was far worse, because they were dying, while you are only acting in a film." In that moment, Anwar seems to realize there is an unbridgeable abyss between the real meaning of what he's done and the stories he and the entire Indonesian regime have told about the killings.
The Act of Killing raises many questions, but perhaps the most awful is this: If, as Anwar Congo says, there are people like him everywhere in the world, will we ever live without terror?
"There is no easy resolution to The Act of Killing," says Oppenheimer. "The murder of 1 million people is inevitably fraught with complexity and contradiction. All the more so when the killers have remained in power, when there has been no attempt at justice and when the story has hitherto only been used to intimidate the survivors. Seeking to understand such a situation--intervening in it, documenting it--can only be equally tangled, unkempt.
"I have developed a filmmaking method with which I have tried to understand why extreme violence, which we hope would be unimaginable, is not only imaginable, but routinely performed," he continues. "We attempt to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not, finally, a story only about Indonesia. It is a story about us all."