The Act of Killing is ‘an extraordinary documentary that lays bare the wounds Indonesia has inflicted on itself’, says MacDara Conroy

The Act of Killing is a film about cognitive dissonance. It’s difficult to watch a smiling old man with more than a passing resemblance to Nelson Mandela doing the cha-cha on a rooftop in Indonesia where we know he once killed countless numbers of objectionables – leftists, ethnic Chinese, pretty much anyone labelled a ‘communist’ – with his own bare hands. These are acts he freely admits to committing, even going so far as to cheerily demonstrate a method he devised for making the job easier, using wooden blocks and a length of wire. That’s just the beginning of an extraordinary documentary that lays bare the wounds, both physical and psychic, this country has inflicted on itself for decades.

The old man is Anwar Congo, a self-professed gangster who seemingly leapt with relish into the role of death squad leader during the anti-communist purge that swept Indonesia in the mid 1960s as Suharto’s regime took hold. American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer meets him nearly 50 years after that genocide, finding a man eager to glorify himself and his friends as Indonesia’s saviours through the medium of film; a man who’s lauded by the orange-fatigued paramilitary group that grew from the vigilante gangs and today pervades almost every aspect of public life, and proud of his status as a figure of respect (whether through love or fear), yet haunted by the consequences of inhuman actions that his naive mind struggles to comprehend.

Oppenheimer’s camera follows passively as Anwar and his portly protege Herman strut through the slums, persuading the locals into re-enacting scenes of heroism (read: terrorism) from his past in pursuit of the state’s poisonous ‘Pancasila’ ideology. It’s there as Herman the thug makes the rounds of the Chinese shopkeepers, their eyes filled with fear and despair as he extorts his protection money. It’s there at the meetings and rallies where government ministers proudly don the gaudy colours of the Pancasila Youth and spout dubious doublespeak about gangsters (‘preman’ in the local tongue) as ‘free men’ – a misapprehension of the root Dutch ‘vrijman’, privateers who got their hands dirty in the service of the Dutch East India Company.

It’s also there as Anwar welcomes a visit from Adi Zulkadry, an old friend from his street hustler days who joined him in the cruelty, the duo imagining themselves the ruthless mobsters from the films they once made a living scalping tickets for. Both have distanced themselves from their atrocities in different ways, but Adi’s defence to Oppenheimer – who does a Werner Herzog and makes himself part of the story when the situation arises – is all the more chilling for its reasoned argument. He is right, after all, that morality is determined by the winners; that the West has a habit of picking and choosing what it denounces as war crimes. Adi’s cold appreciation for what he did – and what his country continues to do, by hiding the truth of its past behind reams of propaganda – strikes an icy dagger in the heart.

What twists the blade is Anwar’s slow awakening to his integral role in the genocide. The film jumps between surrealistic interludes where Anwar and Herman act out a bizarre interpretation of the old man’s bad dreams, and noir-styled set pieces documenting his murderous interrogations of anyone the death squads deemed a ‘communist’. It’s when Anwar himself takes on the part of the victim in their role-playing that he’s finally gripped by the gravity of what he and his fellow preman did for the ‘good’ of their country. For this old man, the truth is literally nauseating. For the viewer, it’s often chest-tightening in its impact.

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