‘The Act Of Killing” is an incredible documentary because it does not just expose the mass killing of over a million ‘communists’ in Indonesia following the 1665 coup, but allows this truth to be revealed by the very people who committed these crimes. The director of the film, Joshua Openheimer, allowed Anwar Congo, The head of a gang called the ‘Frog Squad’ and his associates who conducted many of these mass executions to direct a film recounting their own version of the events. “War crimes are defined by the winners. I am a winner so I can make my own definitions” (Congo, 2013).
There is a great emphasis on the word ‘gangster’ throughout the film as it is derived from idea of ‘free men’. Anwar and his friends wear this title proudly as if they are heroes in their favourite Hollywood films from which they adapted some of their killing techniques. These gangsters were excited to make the film as they saw it as a chance to create a heroic retelling of their lives that they could show to their children.
Early on in the film, Anwar acts out how he used to kill people in one of the killing sites. He demonstrates this in a matter-of-fact way then proceeds to dance the cha-cha. He says “it was like we were killing happily” (Congo, 2013). This brutal honesty is astounding as it appears that Anwar has no remorse for these events. Openheimer explains that this is no more that a façade, “They’re desperately trying to run away from the reality of what they’ve done. You celebrate mass killing so you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer” (Openheimer, 2013). This is extremely confronting as a viewer as the level of corruption in Indonesia’s past becomes obvious. The screening of the film at a university in Yogyakarta “provoked anger and frustration among the audience. Many felt betrayed by the political elite” (Bjerregaard, 2014).
(Still Frame from ‘The Act of Killing’ film – Anwar demonstrating killing with wire)
Anwar’s mood quickly changes as the film proceeds as he begins to realise the impact he has had on the lives of so many families. He begins to confront the ghosts of his past that haunt him in his sleep. “If we succeed in making this film, it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones. (…) It’s not a problem for us, it’s a problem for history” (Congo, 2013). The dissonance in Anwar’s attitude towards his actions allows one to feel remorse for him as a human being despite the atrocities he has committed in his past.
The Act Of Killing, 2012, Motion Picture, Piraya Film and Novaya Zelmya Ltd in association with Spring Films Ltd, Denmark
Henry Barnes, 2013, Joshua Openheimer: ‘You celebrate mass killing so you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror’, The Guardian, London, viewed 28 April 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/20/joshua-oppenheimer-act-of-killing>
Mette Bjerre, 2014, What Indonesians really think about The Act of Killing, The Guardian, London, viewed 28 April 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/mar/05/act-of-killing-screening-in-indonesia>