The Act of Killing: when mass murders become movie stars

If you are looking for a thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind, surreal and unconventional documentary that explores the limits of  human cruelty, The Act of Killing must be on the top of your to-watch  list. 

The mass killer Anwar Congo talks proudly and heroically about his history. © imdb

The Act of Killing is a 2012 documentary movie directed by the American-born British Joshua Oppenheimer. It illuminates  the Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 ,a dark and horrific period in Indonesian history. The Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66, also known as the Indonesian genocide, were large-scale killings and civil unrest that occurred in Indonesia over several months, targeting Communist Party of Indonesia, communist sympathisers, and ethnic Chinese. Local gangs and militias were formed, with the help of the government, and within a year, at least 500,000 people had been murdered and more than 1 million were imprisoned.

After more than half of a century, Oppenheimer came with his movie not to delve into that period from a historical perspective, but to bring viewers into the minds of mass murders.

« It is an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers. It is it not the demonized, easily digestible caricature of a mass murderer that most disturbs us. It is the human being, »

says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges .

 The primary focus is on Anwar Congo, a former executioner responsible for up to 1,000 murders. With colorful clothes and a quick smile, Congo, clearly loves to be on camera and the center of attention.

The Act of Killing won the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. It also won best documentary at the 67th BAFTA awards. However, it was not immune of criticism.

The movie has always been confronted with an ethical question as its story is told , unexpectedly, from the perpetrators’ perspective. This perspective is reinforced through the main cinematic  technique used in the movie: reenactment. Opennheimer asked them to stage dramatic reconstructions of their crimes and to “create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished”. While reenactment is meant to  capture reality and represent it as accurately as possible, the mass killers use it to create their own film-within-a-film  and own version of their victorious history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries. In the movie, we see them enthusiastic to become movie stars  and  to develop fictional scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres. 

Re-enactment of a collective murder. © imdb

Throughout different reenactments in the film, Congo and his friends agree to tell their stories while they dance in musical scenes and act as cowboys and gangsters. They explicitly staged their image and methods of murder after their Hollywood idols.

The director does neither intervene in their process of making their movie nor comment,  which gives the perpetrators an arena of freedom to fabricate their story.

 The Act of Killing is a journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators, offering insight into the minds of mass killers. It gives a space to them to face concretely the atrocities they did.  Most dramatically, the filmmaking process catalyzes an unexpected emotional journey for Anwar, from arrogance to regret as he is made to confront, for the first time in his life, the full implications of what he did. However, his belief that what he did was for his country’s sake makes him in a psychological dilemma and a conflict between a pressure to remain a hero and confession that he is a killer. This duality is represented in the first scene on the rooftop where many killings took place. Anwar reenacts his preferred execution style on a friend and then dances the cha-cha-cha. It is a scene that shows Congo’s apparent joy and pride surrounding this  act, but also reveals his tortured side as he admits that he dances and uses drugs and alcohol to make him forget all the horrible things he did.

« Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear come, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me, and possessed me, »

confesses Anwar Congo.

Congo’s psyche is a stark contrast to that of Adi Zulkadry, his killing partner from the 1960s. Zulkadry flies to Medan from Jakarta halfway through the filming and provides a steely counterpoint to Congo’s antics. Stone-faced throughout the reenactments, Zulkadry expresses no emotion toward his victims. He maintains that he feels no guilt, basically because what he did was right. In one memorable scene, he casually describes killing his girlfriend’s father just because he was Chinese. He brushes off the notion of war crimes saying, « War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition. » The depiction of Zulkadry allows the audience to know the perpetrator’s side of the story and their definition of right and wrong. Even though the act of killing is seen as an atrocious and horrible crime, it is presented as an inevitable act for the greater good for perpetrators.

« When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. [Bush claimed] Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right, according to Bush, but now it’s wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be today’s morality but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Conventions. »

Adi Zulkadry

Several movies can be compared to the Act of Killing.  Standard Operation Procedure,  for example, by Errol Morris (2008) tells the story of what happened at Abu Ghraib (Iraq) from the perspective of the soldiers who were on the ground and actually performing the torture and taking photographs of it. It tries to enter to their minds through the constant juxtaposition between monotonous, everyday activities that the soldiers did, like call their loved ones at home and eat dinner, and the horrific torture they performed on the Iraqi detainees.

a re-enacted scene of torture taken from Standard Operation Procedure. © imdb

Both movies deal with torture as the main subject and adopt the perpetrator’s perspective. However, the very cinematic technique that they both use is what marks their difference. If Standard Operation Procedure hires actors to reenact the scenes of violence, The Act of Killing makes the killers themselves reenact in an attempt to create a complex documentary  wherein fantasy, memory and reality  are merged.

Author: Narimane DHAOUI

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