Truth and Meta-Fiction

The Act of Killing
(Denmark/UK/Norway/Finland, 115 min.)
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Co-Dir: Cristine Cynn, Anonymous
Photo courtesy Films We Like.

The Act of Killing is an extraordinary balancing act of truth and meta-fiction. Director Joshua Oppenheimer reconstructs an era of history by inviting Indonesian death squad leaders to re-enact the war crimes and mass killings for which they were responsible in the 1960s. The Act of Killing introduces viewers to Anwar Congo, a proud leader of the atrocities that resulted in a million deaths, and it lets him play the role of John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and other rugged leading men whom he idolized while cleaning up the country in a brutal performance.

There’s not a hint of remorse as Congo and his fellow gangsters recall their glory days. They speak of triumph, yet they openly acknowledge to taking numerous lives. One expects a grim portrayal when Oppenheimer challenges the war criminals (but they simply refer to themselves as gangsters and militia) to dramatize their actions for the camera. The first instances are mostly what one anticipates. Congo and company walk the streets and browse the residents in a kind of casting call. They’re in more of a communist quarter, though, so folks aren’t too keen to scream and plead before the camera in a kind of mock homage to their family members who were murdered decades before. The crew then goes to the neighbourhood that offers more of their key demographic. The people are more than happy to join in the act of killing. Even the kids point and scream while their parents are pulled into the streets.

The murderous vignettes become more dramatic and embellished as The Act of Killing goes on. Spaghetti western drag shows, musical numbers by the waterfall, and a good old-fashioned gangster scene let the victors of the killings play both the killers and the victims. On one hand, The Act of Killing perpetuates obsolete models and media theories that violent images make violent men. One level of the film permits Congo to speak fondly of all the Hollywood gunslingers he idolized. He adopts a swagger in some scenes—at times it looks as if he’s auditioning for Reservoir Dogs—but The Act of Killing doesn’t delve too much into Congo’s backstory to paint the fuller picture. One can presume Congo was a violent man before he saw these films.

On the other hand, Oppenheimer lets the film image itself serve as the context in which the audience can get to know Congo and his peers. The films within The Act of Killing let the criminals assume the other role for the first time so that Congo and company seem to get a kick out of being on the other side of the knife. (A fake decapitation and a disembowelling are particularly gruesome.) As the drama becomes further and further from the realism depicted in the first few re-enactments, a kind of truth emerges from the fiction.

There are no records with which Oppenheimer could explore this topic in a conventional documentary. The re-enactment of the crimes, while probably unfaithful to the events as they actually occurred, nevertheless offer something that archival footage could not: an admission of guilt. It comes gradually through The Act of Killing that Congo realizes the gravity of what he has done. Admittedly, there is always a thread that rings through the film in which he and his peers openly admit to mass murder, but their conversations lack any sense that their actions were illegal and immoral. There’s an absence of remorse within the admission of deeds done. One early scene, for example, sees Congo act out his killing in one of the orthodox moments of documentary footage as he offers a systematic account of how he killed communists swiftly, cleanly, and, in his mind, humanely.

Congo returns to the killing floor after Oppenheimer lets him watch himself play the victim. Congo, having now experienced this period of history through both eyes, offers a gut-wrenching realization of his actions. As Congo walks through the scene of the crime and looks at it with a fresh perspective, he is interrupted by a physical reaction. The wireless mic attached to his lapel captures every gasp and heave as Congo turns away and chokes down his vomit in order to hide his revulsion from the camera. Not once but twice does the magnitude of his sin hit him in the gut. It’s like the scene in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in which Maria Bello’s character becomes physically ill upon learning that her husband (Viggo Mortensen) had a past life as a contract killer. Congo might have appreciated the likeness to such a tough hero earlier on during the shooting of The Act of Killing, but the parallel might make him sick if he realized it nowadays.

Other truths find their way into The Act of Killing. One re-enactment, for example, shows through the dramatization of events the fictionalization of history that masquerades itself as fact. Congo and his peers are re-creating a devastating scene of carnage on a small village. People scream and buildings burn in a scene of war violence so graphic and gruesome it could be snipped from Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Then, however, the militia receive some feedback once the director yells cut. Their critic is a minister for youth and culture. He worries about the accuracy of the dramatization: he thinks it appears too barbaric. It’s as if the soldiers are relishing their bloodlust and that the off-putting nature of the image might warp public perception in favour of the communists. The Act of Killing captures the propaganda machine in full force and unearths the truths that it has hidden by the perpetuation of false ideas and images.

Oppenheimer’s ingenious approach to this period of history is boldly brilliant. The Act of Killing is, in a way, very much a relative of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell with how both films use the malleability of film form to meditate upon the subjectivity of truth and the fictions that invade the gaps left between facts and records. The performance, The Act of Killing says, conveys as much truth as the real event.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Act of Killing is now available on home video.