The Act of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer creates a multilayered documentary that explores the Indonesian massacres by blending fiction with reality, the present with the past and surrealism with true horror.
Joshua Oppenheimer is already considered as one of the most important documentarists that have emerged in the recent years. Despite the fact that he is involved with filmmaking almost for the past 20 years, his feature length documentary The Act of Killing (2012) was the one that offered him worldwide acknowledgement. The film has been unanimously well received and among the producers, Werner Herzog is also included. The film has won numerous awards including the BAFTA Best Documentary and Best Film award at CPH:DOX Film Festival.
In the 60s Indonesia the decision of the then president Sukarno to turn into more socialistic politics and to protect and help the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were not well received by the military leaders. In 1965 a military coup overthrows Sukarno and imposes Suharto as the new president. At the same period an anti-communist purge starts that lead to the infamous Indonesian killings of 1965-66. There are no official estimations of the killed people during these massacres but the numbers vary from around 500,000 and reach even 1,000,000 victims. The killers of that period are still living in Indonesia since they are part of the same ruling regime. They are also considered heroes and they enjoy important benefits from paramilitary organizations that since 1965 act as the country’s official authorities.
Joshua Oppenheimer digs into this unknown and harsh history of what is probably the cruelest crime of the 20th century that hasn’t been yet judged. He becomes friend with Anwar Congo who is one of the 1965 mobster executioners along with Herman Koto, another gangster and paramilitary leader. Then he persuades them both to prepare a film that would depict the glory and the importance of their brave acts to save Indonesia and their compatriots from the communist threat. The killers believe him and they want to present themselves in the best possible way. For that reason they reenact for fiction purposes – by duplicating some of their favorite films – some of their crimes. At the same time, they offer all the cruel details about their victims; they also play the victims, just to give the most accurate image to the director while they act perfectly naturally. Everything is depicted in the most explicit way that sometimes makes the film almost unwatchable. Brutality is blended with the bleak past and the even more horrifying present as the killers are still there living off their heroic acts.
It is not an exaggeration to declare that The Act of Killing is a revolutionary documentary. It is the first time that the Indonesian past gets fully exposed and raises political and historical questions that finally affect the world’s community interest. Also the documentary gives for the first time the opportunity to those Indonesians that know or don’t want to forget their past to speak and share among them that common knowledge. Inevitably the state’s propaganda is now, for the first time after almost fifty years, questioned even by the killers themselves. The history that was re-written by the winners is not credible anymore. The impact of the film is so powerful and it is also suggested that now two Indonesias exist, the one before and the one after The Act of Killing.
What makes The Act of Killing an important and exceptional film is not just the social impact that already has but also the artistic procedure behind it. Oppenheimer without being a “theoretical” or “professional” documentarist leaves his film to breathe and hence offers moments of pure cinematic exposure. By blending fiction with reality, the present with the past and the surreal macabre humor with true horror he also offers a multilayered emotional experience. The already unpleasant and brutal scenes become even more powerful when Oppenheimer decides to leave his camera to observe as any non-professional would do. Some moments of true awkwardness are enhanced by his own reaction as he subliminally transmits his personal feelings through what he sees and films. Also the director never judges the situation and never takes a clear position about everything that he is experimenting. He leaves the picture to speak itself because literally sometimes it’s impossible to add any other comment. It could be characterized as modernized version of cinéma vérité without following all the strict rules of traditional filmmaking and this creates a uniquely realistic atmosphere.
It should be mentioned that The Act of Killing is not just an Oppenheimer’s personal work as he worked with two co-directors, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, and many other credited as Anonymous collaborators. With this documentary he just touches the surface of Indonesian society. For that reason the director followed the same theme by going one step further with his next documentary The Look of Silence (2014) that almost works as a sequel. Oppenheimer wishes that with his work he will help all the people that had to remain Anonymous in his films’ credits and in their everyday lives too, and they belong to a horrified minority in their homeland to finally get the justice that they demand all these years.