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Reckoning with horror in ‘The Act of Killing’

Anwar Congo (center), who estimates that he was responsible for 1,000 executions in the mid-1960s, provides the central narrative for the documentary.Drafthouse Films

See this movie.

I can't be more direct. "The Act of Killing" is one of the most extraordinary films you'll ever encounter, not to mention one of the craziest filmmaking concepts anywhere, and that includes the whole Bollywood thing.

To begin with, "The Act of Killing" is real — or as real as things can be when you ask the men who perpetrated mass killings in Indonesia to tell and show (and film) their own version of events. It's the brainchild of 38-year-old director Joshua Oppenheimer, who spent more than eight years there recording the stories of dozens of death-squad leaders and sifting through mountains of interviews and footage before arriving at his two-hour final cut. Additional directing credit goes to Christine Cynn (his co-director on 2003's "The Globalisation Tapes") and an anonymous Indonesian who apparently was involved in protests against the country's New Order military dictatorship in the late 1990s. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog lend their names as executive producers.

Oppenheimer, a Texan and Harvard grad now based in Europe, settles on the central narrative of Anwar Congo, a self-described "gangster" (the word is widely interpreted in Indonesian culture to mean "free man," as in rebel, as in patriot) who estimates he was responsible for 1,000 executions back in the mid-1960s. That's when North Sumatra, in the wake of an attempted coup against President Sukarno, became a killing field for enforcers of an anti-communist purge that claimed hundreds of thousands of victims, possibly millions, throughout Indonesia. Backed by the army of future President Suharto and his Western allies, men like Congo went from two-bit thugs and hustlers (Congo's racket was scalping movie tickets) to government-sanctioned thieves, rapists, and murderers. To this day, they're mostly convinced that they were necessary agents of nation building, and their unrepentant swagger provides the perfect potting soil for Oppenheimer's equally bold creative ideas.


Instead of just interviewing the killers, which would have been compelling enough given how little most Westerners know about their history, Oppenheimer asks them to dramatize their thoughts and actions as cinema, employing whatever moviemaking techniques and genre tropes inspire them. Thus we get a film within a film, scripted and shaped by Congo with the help of former comrades, that is a schizophrenic mash-up of gangster pulp, film noir, western, drag musical, horror-fantasy, David Lynchian fever dream, and God knows what else. The "cast" includes Adi Zulkadry, a seemingly guilt-free executioner who argues that "war crimes are defined by the winners"; Safit Pardede, an irredeemable brute, extortionist, and misogynist pig; and Herman Koto, who provides comic relief as the fat gangster frequently seen in drag, willing to do just about anything for attention or financial reward. But the leading man at all times is Congo, a dapper old player fond of loud suits (add Blaxploitation to the list of genre inspirations) who turns out to be as repressed as he is candid.


In its more conventional moments, "The Act of Killing" is a documentary that simply does its job, pulling us along as Congo and company move about their turf, share tender moments with family, attend hate-spewing paramilitary rallies, and shake down the local ethnic Chinese merchants. When Oppenheimer's camera crew visits a newspaper, its publisher boasts about how he falsified interviews to paint people as communists, knowing it would lead to their deaths. Koto campaigns for a position in Parliament ("just robbers with ties," Congo quips), and we witness how thoroughly corrupt the system is, between his matter-of-fact lust for bigger kickbacks and his would-be constituents' blatant declaration that their votes are for sale.


This film isn't much interested in historical footage of the slaughter. That could be viewed as a failing, but it's also a strength. The killers' accounts are as vicious and chilling as any clip or photograph — in fact, if anything, the outlaws may be overstating their role in the death toll.

Oppenheimer's less conventional approach, while arguably more prone to manipulation, makes its case in the scenes documenting the killers' own filmmaking efforts. There are times when even the reenactments seem excessively brutal, especially on children recruited to dramatize a massacre or encouraged to watch grandpa being pretend-strangled. But every time you think the documentary might be going too far or flirting with filmmaking that feels exploitative, you realize it's opened your eyes a little wider, and maybe that's the only way we'll ever see into the far corners of this kind of moral vacuum.

Herman Koto, a gangster frequently seen in drag, in “The Act of Killing.”Drafthouse Films

Oppenheimer has called the killers' dramatizations a "documentary of the imagination" — a way of getting at how they really view their victims and actions when even their loosest grip on reality slips away. Whether or not you agree (allowing these men to have any kind of voice has drawn criticism), there's no denying that their moviemaking gives rise to extremely powerful moments. One comes late in the film, after Congo has acted out a scene that makes him the victim of his own preferred method of execution — a wire pulled tight around the neck, in the style of many early American gangster classics. Congo seizes up after just one take, telling his director he "can't do that again." Later, watching the scene play back, he explains that he was overcome by experiencing the full magnitude of what his victims went through. When Oppenheimer suggests that his victims had it slightly worse, given that they were actually dying, Congo at first protests, then ponders the observation and ultimately tears up, though he never concedes the point.


That sets the stage for an unforgettable final act (possible spoiler ahead): As Congo visits a concrete rooftop where scores of his victims were garroted, he's suddenly unable to contain the buildup of bile and sin. He appears in the throes of a physical and mental reckoning that's hard to watch, no matter how deserved or necessary. The sound of his tortured retching will ring in your ears for weeks.

This is no glamorized self-portrait staring out from the cover of Rolling Stone. Yes, "The Act of Killing" hands its murderers a mirror and a camera, but it doesn't walk away before it captures the complete reflection. In the end, the message is clear. There's nothing sexy about a man who kills, or the image he projects. There's only misery all the way around.


Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.