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The Act of Killing

Catherine von Ruhland

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, plus Christine Cynn & Anonymous

Cert E, 115 mins

Extras: UK trailer, Director's Commentary including Werner Herzog, Deleted scenes, Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, Interview with Executive Producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, 'The Murder of Gonzago' pdf, 2nd Director's Cut DVD


'I had never seen anything as powerful, as frightening, as surreal' realised the soon-to-be executive producer, Werner Herzog (director of Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) when Joshua Oppenheimer first showed him a short cut of what was to become this jaw-dropping, internationally-acclaimed documentary. It is rare for me to feel compelled to turn to a fellow yet unknown cinemagoer after a film so the two of us can unpack what we have just witnessed: only Fight Club and Gomorrah have had the same effect. But I defy anyone to watch the magisterial The Act of Killing and not be stunned by its strange horror. (Notably, the DVD has an unusual 'E for Exempt' classification which will enable secondary school screenings where it deserves to be discussed.)

The director Oppenheimer opens the film with a quote from Voltaire accompanied by darkness and the din of torrential rain: 'It is forbidden to kill. All murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.' This is the disturbing crux of what we are about to see. He focuses on the small-time gangsters who became members of Indonesia's death squads following Suharto's military coup in 1965, massacring over a million so-called 'communists' within a year. The leaders are still at large, and indeed celebrated by a society that remains founded on terrorism.

What makes The Act of Killing so flesh-creepingly compelling is that Oppenheimer turns documentary filmmaking convention on its head. He challenges a small cadre of these men, including the celebrated henchman Anwar Congo, to re-enact their sixties' barbarism by making their own film, and follows their journey. Still proud of their actions, they set to the task with gusto turning to the US musicals, Westerns and gangster movies they love for inspiration and style.

The debonair Congo is effectively the 'star' of the film, delighting from the start in explaining how Hollywood movies taught him to effectively bloodlessly throttle his victims with wire. This would play into the view that 'violent movies lead to violent acts' were it not so patently clear that the only encouragement these hoods needed was money, and they were perfectly capable of imagining their own acts of sadism. Congo alone has a tally of around 1,000 murders to his name.

What we witness through the course of his moviemaking is how Anwar unravels as he comes to recognise his crime. Already at the top of the film suffering nightmares and resorting to drink and drugs to forget, he appears a happy man but his apparently nonchalant dancing at the site of his killing is eerily reminiscent of the endless shoe-shuffling of the murderer in Twin Peaks.

Interestingly, our view of Anwar shifts during the movie, especially when contrasted with a one-time fellow executioner, the more apparently urbane, more intelligent Adi Zulkady. Initially, the latter gives the impression that he is more aware of history, the level of violence of the winners, and why the grown-up children of the genocide would remain deeply aggrieved, and forgiveness must be in the equation.

But while the more surface level Anwar flips between revelling in declaring himself 'a gangster, a free man' (the cry of Indonesia's corrupt and powerful) and admitting he is tortured by his guilt, the untroubled Adi later chillingly admits to 'Josh' that he has no regard for the Geneva Convention's definition of his past acts as 'war crimes'. He even challenges the director to have him called to the UN's International Court in the Hague. Surely, you can't help thinking, The Act of Killing is ample evidence?

As a self-proclaimed 'winner', Avi and his family are seen calmly wandering through a shopping mall with familiar Western names like Top Shop promoting their wares. There's a distinct sense here that global capitalism is completely amoral with no regard for whose bones on which it is built. By the end, even Anwar himself seems like a ghost trapped wandering the modern world.

Yet more so the ordinary powerless Indonesians, facing regular and open extortion and clearly living in fear. For them, there remains little hope of change in a culture fuelled by corruption and freedom for the powerful without any sense of responsibility. That even the native co-director and countless crewmembers are listed in the credits as Anonymous speaks volumes. Yet they have helped create a masterpiece of documentary cinema. Essential viewing.