As documentarist Errol Morris has noted, the adjective surreal does not begin to do justice to the film The Act of Killing. Costumed dancers parade out of the mouth of a gigantic fish. An overweight death-squad goon twirls in drag to the lilting strains of “Born Free”. Torturers and murderers reenact their crimes in sets that evoke film noir, westerns, and musicals, then meet at the bar for a sing-along to “Cotton Fields”.
What is strangest about the film, however, is that it is a documentary, and one that takes on a grim subject, indeed: namely, the massacre of Communists, unionists, and ethnic Chinese that followed the 1965 attempted coup and subsequent purge that year and the next by the military in Indonesia. This massacre is described not from the point of view of the victims but the paramilitaries responsible.
“They didn’t speak like perpetrators that you normally hear in documentaries, who deny what they’ve done or act apologetic,” director Joshua Oppenheimer says, speaking to the Straight by phone from Los Angeles. If anything, they were “boastful and open” about their crimes. “There was this shamelessness that came from feeling like the whole world supported them, and this openness because they were still in power and had never been forced to admit what they did was wrong. It was as though I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power.”
Early in the film, Anwar Congo—a man who claims to be personally responsible for as many as 1,000 deaths—happily demonstrates for the camera a garroting technique that helped him avoid getting sprayed with blood. From there, the reenactments grow increasingly more elaborate, with Oppenheimer on hand to facilitate the killers’ imagined tableaus, and Congo, who becomes increasingly reflective, making key decisions in set design, lighting, costumes, and casting.
The film raises a bewildering number of questions. For instance, why does one paramilitary—Herman Koto, whom Oppenheimer rightly describes as a “big, scary-looking guy”—so frequently appear in drag?
“We should all be wearing more drag, I think!” Oppenheimer says, laughing. “But if you force me to answer: he had a background in acting. The paramilitary group had a theatre troupe, and all the roles were played by men,” with Koto typically playing a “matronly storyteller”.
In addition to winning the support of distinguished directors Morris and Werner Herzog (both given executive-producer credit), The Act of Killing has, to date, won 25 awards internationally, including the Aung San Suu Kyi Award at the 2013 Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. More importantly, it is being well-received in the last place one might expect. “The film has come to Indonesia, as I hoped it would,” Oppenheimer says, “like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, exposing something that everybody knew to be the case but was too afraid to talk about, thereby creating a space where they [Indonesians] could speak openly, without fear, about what they already know.”
The Act of Killing theatrical cut (115 minutes) opens at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (July 19). The director’s cut (159 minutes) opens in the same theatre the next day. See www.viff.org.