Historically, the human race has always depended on a reductionist approach to morality – one that helps us to clearly delineate the difference between good and evil. From the Cold War to the Crusades, societies have elected to believe that their enemies represent an absolute evil – an idea often strategically encouraged by the powers that be. However, the reality is that even the most abhorrent of evil acts, from rape to genocide, are committed by everyday human beings like you and I (a phenomenon for which Hannah Arendt coined the term, the “banality of evil”). This unsatisfying truth is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, one of the finest documentaries I have ever come across.
A brief history lesson to begin. In 1965, the Indonesian government was subject to a failed coup that saw the military respond violently by executing more than 500,000 people with alleged ties to the nation’s Communist party. These murders were carried out not only by members of the military, but also by legitimised vigilante death squads (most commonly local gangsters). This was a period of horrific torture, rape and murder, and it is for this reason that the premise of The Act of Killing is odd at first glance, if not offensive.
Joshua Oppenheimer approaches a pair of gangsters who were members of these death squads, and asks them to create a film that tells the story of their part in the killings. Anwar Congo, the leader of the pair, is a charming and seemingly unflappable old man with a love of dance. His friend, Adi Zulkadry, is a rotund and simple man, equal parts grotesque monster and caring friend. Anwar and Adi are low level gangsters whose criminal activities have largely revolved around ticket scalping and low-level racketeering. But to many, because of their involvement in the mass-murders of 1965, they are not considered criminals – they are heroes. Oppenheimer gives the pair the chance to create their film in a mishmash of genres with as much creative freedom as they wish, and they are quick to involve a varied range of fellow executioners in the production. The resulting creative decisions are confronting, ethically disturbing and quite surreal as these men filter their acts through a lens of Hollywood imagery and self-congratulatory mythology.
However, more affecting and revealing than the gangster’s movie extravaganza is what they reveal about themselves in the course of its production. These are human beings with a range of human foibles. Some of them remember their murderous acts with patriotic fondness, while others are deeply haunted (many, we are told, were driven insane by their crimes long ago). But even for those who seem to have recovered from their crimes unscathed, the human processes of denial, repression and absolution of responsibility are clearly in play. These are real people – and that is the historical lesson that Oppenheimer asks the human race to remember. If we do not understand how real human beings can commit acts of evil – if we insist on disassociating ourselves from the very real potential for human corruptibility – then history will inevitably repeat itself.
Oppenheimer’s skill in fusing the bizarre imagery of the gangster’s production with its opposite – the story that these men do NOT wish to tell – is masterful. It’s worth noting that the film was co-directed with an Indonesian who has elected to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are credited as Executive Producers.
This is near perfect cinema. A masterpiece.
Another CURNBLOG review from the Melbourne International Film Festival.