Mass murderers reenact their crimes for fun in Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Act of Killing.

Michael Atkinson

Mass murder gets the Bollywood treatment in The Act of Killing, an 'eye-popping' documentary. (Courtesy of Drafthouse Films)

The Act of Killing is a com­plete­ly new order of eye-pop­ping, fore­head-slap­ping doc­u­men­tary. There’s nev­er been a film quite like it, and the rea­sons are twofold: One, film­mak­er Joshua Oppen­heimer approach­es his sub­ject mat­ter — Indone­sia, its mili­tia cul­ture and its recent his­to­ry — with wild inven­tive­ness, allow­ing his sub­jects to be co-cre­ators in the process, with star­tling and sur­re­al results. Two, Indone­sia itself. What­ev­er you may know about it from NPR or the New York Times won’t pre­pare you for what you see here of the country’s blood-soaked dementia.

Oppenheimer recognizes immediately the self-glorifying aspects of the culture and the native love of American movies, and from the outset invites his blithely life-loving subjects to help shape the film by literally reenacting scenes of torture and mass murder for the camera.

The aging mani­acs we meet are vet­er­ans of the mid-’60s unrest that first saw a failed coup attempt pre­cip­i­tate the top­pling of Pres­i­dent Sukarno, and then an anti-com­mu­nist back­lash that swept through the islands and gave ad hoc mili­tias free reign to mur­der any­one sus­pect­ed of left­ish lean­ings. Today, Indone­sia is a bustling and cor­rupt klep­toc­ra­cy, and its mili­tias sur­vive as pop­u­lar and pow­er­ful pub­lic insti­tu­tions. The men who run them get in front of Oppenheimer’s cam­era (as well as on nation­al TV) and proud­ly crow about how many peo­ple they bru­tal­ly” killed. (The film puts it at more than a mil­lion.) Behead­ings, drown­ings, sys­tem­at­ic stran­gu­la­tions — these famous codgers remain gang­sters,” an Indone­sian use of the term that they say trans­lates in Eng­lish to free men.” The nation’s entire secu­ri­ty infra­struc­ture, pro­tect­ing its indus­tries and gov­ern­ment and emit­ting non­stop pro­pa­gan­da, is found­ed on reser­voirs of blood, and is still run like the Mob.

But Oppen­heimer doesn’t stop there. He rec­og­nizes imme­di­ate­ly the self-glo­ri­fy­ing aspects of the cul­ture and the native love of Amer­i­can movies, and from the out­set invites his blithe­ly life-lov­ing sub­jects to help shape the film by lit­er­al­ly reen­act­ing scenes of tor­ture and mass mur­der for the cam­era. Para­mil­i­tary leg­ends Anwar Con­go (who dyes his white hair black, so as to resem­ble his younger self), Adi Zuk­ladry and Her­man Koto play” them­selves in their youth­ful butcher­ing days but also start play­ing vic­tims, too, cov­ered in clum­sy gore makeup.

Rec­ol­lec­tions fre­quent­ly dis­rupt the scenes, which are some­times faith­ful to the mem­o­ries of mas­sacres and sieges, and some­times movie-genre fan­ci­ful. The killers cri­tique their own per­for­mances after­wards, often ask­ing for a reshoot. Using a local TV stu­dio, Oppen­heimer films them in a vari­ety of styles: There’s a full-on noir episode, with fedo­ras and silk suits, and even a West­ern, visu­al­ized like a campy mix of Ser­gio Leone and John Waters. Koto, a vast and vain pig of a man, packs him­self into sequined night­club drag at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, and Oppen­heimer ris­es to the occa­sion, pep­per­ing the film with lurid­ly col­ored sub-Bol­ly­wood dance num­bers that, giv­en the con­text, make your jaw drop.

In a film focused on death squad cut­throats and not their vic­tims, Con­go and his cohort become the movie stars they always felt they should be. But of course, out­side of their pro­pa­gan­dized bell jar, the play­act­ing hijinks are a ter­ri­fy­ing absur­di­ty. No won­der both Wern­er Her­zog and Errol Mor­ris stepped up as exec­u­tive pro­duc­ers to make sure this wild doc­u­ment made it into Amer­i­can the­aters. There is a tra­di­tion here — Oppen­heimer is clear­ly walk­ing the less-trav­eled path of pio­neer­ing ethno­graph­ic film­mak­er Jean Rouch, who as ear­ly as 1958’s Moi, un Noir was cri­tiquing post-colo­nial inequity by let­ting African work­ers con­trol” his films’ sto­ries and thrusts.

But what Oppen­heimer has come up with is alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent: a wide-eyed plunge into the lega­cy of total­i­tar­i­an blood­shed that’s just as fan­tas­ti­cal­ly obliv­i­ous and self-obsessed as Hol­ly­wood itself. The Act of Killing is nev­er less than styl­is­ti­cal­ly self-con­scious — a late and lav­ish reen­act­ment of the burn­ing of a vil­lage is sud­den­ly shot by Oppen­heimer in grit­ty, camp-free terms, and the impact is chill­ing. Redefin­ing cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance for the new cen­tu­ry, the movie is a polit­i­cal high-wire act, with more than half of its crew (includ­ing a co-direc­tor) list­ed as Anony­mous” in the cred­its. Report­ed­ly, its release in Indone­sia is ignit­ing a cul­tur­al demand for rehis­tori­ciza­tion and jus­tice. Else­where, what the film says about movies, self-decep­tion, and com­mon mass blood­let­ting should mere­ly steal our sleep.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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