Film Review - The Act of Killing

Although it does not make easy viewing, Joshua Oppenheimer's surreal and chilling documentary, The Act of Killing, recently released on DVD, is a must see. Oppenheimer looks back to 1960s Indonesia, a time of brutal bloodshed when more than a million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals were killed with impunity following a failed coup. One of the main perpetrators of the massacres that took place between 1965 and 1966 was Anwar Congo, a leader in Indonesia's pro-regime paramilitary, the Pancasila Youth. He was aided by a bunch of mindless thugs who happily refer to themselves as "gangsters" as if it made them heroes.

None of the men have been brought to justice for their appalling crimes and it is this impunity that allows them to laugh and boast about their acts of violence. Congo and his cronies appear delighted to be interviewed by Oppenheimer and positively relish the opportunity he presents them to re-enact and film the torture and murder scenes. For them, the word "gangster" means "free man" and their acts of cruelty are something to be celebrated. Early on, Congo demonstrates how he used wire to kill his victims which he found cleaner, in terms of bloodshed.

The casualness with which the acts of torture, murder and the rape of women and children are described makes one's blood run cold. In one scene, Congo takes part in a chat show where the murder of Communists is applauded by the presenter and studio audience while the programme editors look on aghast at his lack of conscience.

It would all be too relentlessly brutal to watch in one sitting if it were not for the surreal musical scenes. In one, dancers in colourful costumes step out from the belly of a huge fish structure. One of the thugs¸ dressed in garish pink drag, admires them from afar describing them as "eye candy". In a musical interlude towards the end, the dancers are surrounded by lush green, behind them is a waterfall. Set to the soundtrack of 'Born Free' the ghosts of the murdered appear and present Congo with a medal to thank him for executing them and sending them to heaven.

It's a deeply unsettling portrait of a monster. Although resolutely unrepentant, Congo admits to having nightmares and he is haunted by the ghost of one particular man he decapitated and whose eyes he failed to close after death. When Congo takes on the role of victim and is interrogated by his fellow murderers, he appears to feel a shiver of remorse. After making his poor grandchildren watch the playback of a violent scene of torture, he tells Oppenheimer that he really felt what it must have been like for the victim. Off camera, Oppenheimer points out that his experience is not the same because Congo knows it is only a film whereas his victims knew that they were going to die. By the end of The Act of Killingwe realise that Congo has been affected by the numerous reconstructions; he's less cocksure for a start. But it's difficult to know whether the final scene of self-revulsion is genuine or merely staged by Oppenheimer.

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