By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The Act Of Killing” is a documentary film. I want to emphasize that right up front. But it opens with a beguiling surrealistic dance sequence. A giant fish, the size of an office building, sits on the edge of a body of water. The fish is concrete, perhaps metal; it’s hard to tell. Its mouth opens onto a runway.
Down the runway, out of the mouth, come six chorus girls, dancing not quite in synchronization. We cut to a waterfall, and a heavy-set man in drag standing underneath it. He stands next to a distinguished-looking fellow in a robe. They extend their arms to the heavens in apparent beneficence.
But on the soundtrack, underneath this idealized vision, is a voice insisting, “Smile! Real joy, not just pleasure!” And that is only the introduction to one of the most fascinating, and most horrifying, films in recent years.
Behind the scenes of this “extravaganza,” the man with the robe is Anwar Congo. One of several paramilitary leaders and gangsters who executed suspected communists in Indonesia following the coup of 1965. Congo personally slaughtered approximately 1,000 people and ordered the deaths of many more.
Congo and the others associated with him want to make their own movie. They want to portray their stories in their own fashion, no matter where their whims take them. Director Joshua Oppenheimer, an American documentary filmmaker based in Indonesia and the UK, agrees to help them do this.
Thus, Oppenheimer films the killers, who are imagining their own scenarios, staging them, and then watching them for enjoyment. They recreate many executions, including several staged with Congo’s specialty — strangling with wire. He explains early on that he adopted this method after discovering that beating people to death left too much blood to be cleaned up.
The fat man in drag turns out to be Herman Koto, a fellow killer. Both men have been tied to the prevalent Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization, which struts about in orange and black camouflage.
Koto apparently chose to dress in drag. And some of the killers make the choice to portray their own victims on screen, sobbing and pleading for their own lives — lives which, in real life, were never spared.
The convolutions of the acting, and sometimes dragging unwitting parties into the acting, charge every scene in the film. A lot of nervous laughter erupts, and a lot of nervous smiles can be seen behind Congo, Koto, and the others. They are the winners, they are writing their own history with this filming; anyone who defies them can still face death.
The actual dead, of course, should never be forgotten. They share the screen with the killers, playing an invisible role throughout every single minute. For that matter, they are present to this day, in every single minute of life in modern Indonesia, with the shopping malls and slick signage it projects proudly to the world.
Oppenheimer’s one mistake in making the documentary may be that he left the dead too far out of his story. But it is fascinating how the killers get “in character” for their filming, even when they’re switching roles.
You’ll see tears in the eyes of men who have done inhuman things. They swear that they are haunted by the dead, swarmed by ghosts as they try to sleep.
And heaven help us, you will have to decide whether to believe them. (end)
“The Act Of Killing” opens Friday, August 2 at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes call 206.781.5755 or check local listings.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.