Friday, July 12, 2013

The Act of Killing (2012)

Anwar Congo is an older man: dark skinned, grey haired, slight, but fit. He smiles easily. Asked to explain how he forgets his troubles, he is forthright: “Good music, dancing…a little alcohol…a little marijuana…a little—” he struggles to find the word he wants. “—Ecstasy.” In any other documentary, Anwar would be a charmer. But in this one, he is not. The troubles he must forget are his nightmares. And he has those nightmares because he killed over 1,000 people.

Anwar is an Indonesian “gangster”, one of several we meet in The Act of Killing, a new documentary about men like him, and the life they lead today. Its premise is radical: give these men—who rose from small-time ticket scalping to become leaders of death squads in the 1960s—the chance to re-enact their methods, on camera, in the style of the films they loved. Imagine an aging murderer, dressed as Bogart (for example), pretending to garrote a prisoner. They do this. For them, it’s a trip down memory lane, and more. They can barely contain their glee.

It’s ghoulish. And absurd: one of the gangsters (the word, they keep insisting, means “free men”, that’s why they use it) plays most of his roles in drag, his belly bulging out of a dancing-girl costume as he minces around. You wait for the moment of truth, when one of them will step back, in shocked realization, but that moment never really comes. Perhaps Anwar is facing it, little by little, but not the rest. Why? Because they don’t have to.

This, to me, was the truly unsettling thing about The Act of Killing: the lack of accountability these men face in their own society. They committed crimes in the aftermath of Indonesia’s Thirtieth of September Movement, which saw the rise of Suharto and the mass murder of thousands of communists, suspected communists, and ethnic Chinese. The savagery of this campaign, it seems, has been underplayed in Indonesian society, but not that severely. In the film’s most astounding scene (which is saying something), we see the aging paramilitaries on national T.V., gloating about their reign of terror, as an Indonesian version of Kelly Ripa chirps about the necessity of exterminating the enemy.

Anwar has a friend, and fellow old-school killer, named Adi Zulkadry. They discuss Anwar’s troubled sleeps. Adi describes them as the product of a weak mind (the translation makes it sound more insulting than he means it to be.) Adi claims he feels no such guilt. He acknowledges that he could, and even understands why the sons and daughters of the communists he butchered despise him. “That’s normal,” he says. But while Anwar and Adi talk frankly about the psychological cost of being a mass murderer, issues of right and wrong never quite enter into the discussion. It’s a cure Anwar’s looking for, not absolution.

We’re encouraged to see Anwar as redeemable. We know, from the start of the film, that he has the nightmares. We see him teaching his grandsons empathy, playing with baby ducks. During one of the reenactments, in which he plays a murder victim, he breaks down. He smiles less and less as the film goes on. Perhaps he’s coming around.

But I don’t know. A good storyteller knows how to make a character likeable or not—how to emphasize good qualities over bad. Surrounding Anwar are men so repugnant that he seems like a gentle soul by comparison. There are vile misogynists who joke about raping 14-year-old girls; thugs who shake down shopkeepers (right on camera!); politicians who cynically court the paramilitaries. And none but Anwar expresses the slightest introspection. Were you forced to choose, it is Anwar you’d spend the afternoon with.

Still, do we know if Anwar raped anyone? Probably he did. And for all his grandfatherly bearing today, there are those who reminisce about the terror he once caused. That he doesn’t celebrate this is to his credit, but does it make him better than those who do? And does the others’ bravado hide their own remorse? The filmmakers seem less interested in finding out.

One more thing: early in the film, Anwar dyes his hair black. To make the reenactments more authentic, he explains. But he appears throughout the film with either black or grey hair, so it wasn’t clear to me in what order these scenes were filmed. Presumably the scenes with the grey hair came first. If so, then Anwar’s seemingly subtle descent into grief was well-constructed, and not just by him. This is my cynical side coming out. But when judging men like Anwar, cynicism seems like a reasonable precaution.

Where to see The Act of Killing:
The Act of Killing (Jagal) screens Friday, July 19 through Thursday, July 25, 2013, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer; co-directed by Anonymous and Christine Cynn; and executive produced by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joram ten Brink and Andre Singer. 

Please note the following, straight from TIFF: “[We] will be screening two different versions of The Act of Killing. The director's cut, which runs 160 minutes, will screen at 2:45pm daily, excluding Mondays. All other screenings will be of the 116 minute version.” (This blog post is based on the 116-minute cut.)

1 comment:

  1. This is an unflinching, captivating documentary that does much more than simply record or readdress history - it uses cinema as both judge and jury for a one-time executioner.