'For massacres, I usually wore jeans. For massacres, pants should be thick," observes Anwar Congo, the central figure in Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary, The Act of Killing.
In addition to addressing the wholesale, indiscriminate slaughter of "communists" _ basically anyone accused of opposing the military dictatorship _ in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, Oppenheimer's film explores the psychology of a nation where a norm has been created from terror. It is a film about making a film about killing, a film about the representation of history, how history is remembered and how reality is "created" through the act of remembering.
The Act of Killing opens with a brief but broad statement providing background information on the conflict in Indonesia, before following Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry and several other gangsters who were involved in the extermination of alleged "communists" during that period as they make a film re-enacting their deeds. This re-enactment, Oppenheimer believed, would reconnect them to the past.
In contemporary Medan, capital of North Sumatra, these men are regarded as heroes _ they are both feared and revered. If they are not themselves working for the government, they are good friends with government officials. They show their grandchildren the footage of their re-enactments of killings. Their children play roles in these scenes. The film quickly underscores the power these individuals hold. Extortion and corruption are freely practised; they do whatever they please without any fear of retribution.
The film is surreal. We watch Anwar Congo show off what he regards as an efficient, makeshift method of execution: strangling with a length of wire. We watch dramatisations of nightmarish scenarios. We watch people recounting the killing of a man whose throat was placed under the leg of a table.
The players ham it up for the camera, sitting on a table, singing and drumming, using a sack in place of the real victim. Then, "Oh! He's dead!"
The film weaves in and out of different realities; it's a film within a film. We don't know when the characters are performing, and for which camera. In a scene during a film shoot, Anwar's neighbour, Suryono, suggests they incorporate his story. So Suryono gives an account of the death of his stepfather, forcing himself to laugh before remarking, "We buried him like a goat next to the main road." Suryono knows he is being filmed, if not for Anwar's film, then by Oppenheimer's camera. We are never allowed to get lost in this film in the same way that Anwar can lose himself in an Elvis Presley movie (he recalls being in such a good mood after he watched that flick that he was dancing as he left the cinema). Oppenheimer consistently reminds us that the film is being used as a medium to reveal traumatic events that have not previously being spoken about.
Through this inventive method, Oppenheimer draws out the perpetrators, plumbing the depths of their memories. Right from the beginning, Anwar, even as he readily admits to having killed hundreds, is humanised. He has to turn to "good music, dancing, alcohol, a little marijuana, a little _ what do you call it? _ Ecstasy" to deal with his killings.
In this early scene, Anwar is smiling and comes across as light-hearted, but it is apparent that there is much hidden beneath the surface. He admits to having nightmares. Oppenheimer does not allow us to easily label the men as killers; they are portrayed simply as people who have created a certain reality in order to live with what they have done, with the terrible crimes they have committed. It has nothing to do with whether we, the viewers, agree or disagree with the situation. As Adi Zulkrady says, "It's all about finding the right excuse."
In a jarring nightmare sequence, Anwar is shown dead, surrounded by monkeys and what appear to be body parts scattered across the landscape. Watching a playback of this clip with Herman, Anwar talks about the placement of this sequence within the context of their film. It could either justify all the sadism to follow, or it could suggest that Anwar does eventually meet with the karma he deserves. The dream scene is set in a time tunnel. But Oppenheimer's entire film is ultimately set in a time tunnel, a tunnel of memory. Oppenheimer reveals that the process of re-enacting history is not simply about rediscovering facts; it is an exploration of the human psyche through the act of remembering.
The Act of Killing will be shown at the Lido cinema tomorrow, starting at 2pm. For information about tickets, contact email@example.com. The screening will be followed by a discussion of its contents in which local scholars will participate.