Everyone knows history’s written by the victors — especially the Indonesian gangsters who killed more than 500,000 alleged communists between 1965-66.
That’s why executioner Anwar Congo and his friends (including gangster and paramilitary leader Herman Koto, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, North Sumatra Governor Syamsul Arifin and Pancasila Youth Leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno) are thrilled to be making a movie commemorating the Indonesian communist massacres of 1965.
“It doesn’t have to be a big film,” says Congo. “We will remain in history because we documented what we did when we were young.”
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and a mostly anonymous crew (names withheld for protection), “The Act of Killing” is a BAFTA-winning and Academy Award-nominated feature-length documentary about the Indonesian men who murdered thousands.
The title itself is a double entendre. In some scenes, Congo, Koto and others talk about what it was like to kill. In other scenes, Congo and Koto stage elaborate re-enactments of the massacres (with the assistance of Oppenheimer’s film and make-up crew).
Congo, who calls himself a gangster, models himself off American mafia movies. His heroes were Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne’s characters.
In fact, Congo picked up his favorite murder trick from Hollywood films.
“It’s faster with wire,” Congo says. “Because when you pull hard, the victim can’t grab it. He can’t grab it because it cuts his throat.”
He killed thousands this way, strangling his victims and disposing their bodies via rice sacks.
And although the deaths haunt him, Congo says he’s a happy man who sings and dances and self-medicates with alcohol and drugs (from marijuana to Molly).
Fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry doesn’t feel guilty; he doesn’t have nightmares. To him, the massacres are not war crimes, but rather consequences of war. He almost sounds rational as he compares the Indonesian killings of 1965 to the early European colonists’ slaughter of Native Americans and the recent war on terror.
“When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right and Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Zulkadry says. “That was right according to Bush, but now its wrong. … ‘War crimes’ are defined by winners. I’m a winner so I can make my own definition.”
“The Act of Killing” blurs the lines of acting and reality. The torture scenes are so realistic and vivid. In one scene, snot flies out of a man’s nose as he’s being ‘strangled’ with wire. A little girl is still crying after the director yells, “Cut!” The documentary style makes it hard to differentiate how much of this is acting and how much of this ‘acting’ stems from real emotions or memories.
That’s the case with Congo’s neighbor Suryono — who stars as one of the gangsters’ victims. He recounts a memory of burying a Chinese family friend between film takes. In the next scene, he’s being tortured and ‘killed’ himself.
Usually filmmakers aren’t the subject of their movies, but even if none of them are pictured in “The Act of Killing,” their presence changes everything. By allowing Congo and gang to use his film crew to stage their own production of the 1965 killings, Oppenheimer ingeniously affects the film’s narrative.
Oppenheimer becomes the invisible Dr. Brodsky from Anthony Burgess’ novel “A Clockwork Orange” — making Congo re-live and re-watch his crimes.
As they re-create the killings, beatings and burnings starring Congo and Koto, Congo’s transported back to his triumphs. But what once caused him great joy, now causes him pain.
Congo’s fixated on one scene in the picture — where he’s the one being strangled with wire.
“Did the people I tortured feel the way I feel here?” Congo asks Oppenheimer.
“Actually, the people you tortured feel much worse because you knew it was a film and they knew they were going to die,” Oppenheimer answers.
“The Act of Killing” was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and more. The film won the 2014 BAFTA Award for “Best Documentary. “The Act of Killing” was also nominated for “Best Documentary in the 2014 Academy Awards.