The Raid was the most recent high profile film to have come out of Indonesia, as a violent action thriller that bears the brutal and elaborate deaths of many of the characters involved. Well now we return to the same nation, except this time the murders that we hear about are completely real, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible documentary The Act of Killing. A film so emotionally charged and painfully absorbing, that this could be six hours long and you’d still be sitting there transfixed.
Oppenheimer heads to South East Asia, where he meets the notorious former gangster Anwar Congo and his collective of loyal accomplices, a group responsible for the murders of countless innocent citizens. In the 1960’s this group of troublemakers were promoted to becoming a legalised death squad, whereby it was their duty to torture and dispense of both the Chinese Indonesians and communist members of society. Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with the ageing group, as they recount their former experiences from such a time, reenacting their mass-killings through the notion of cinema, using famous sequences from Hollywood movies to reimagine their dark days. However what begins as a playful and lavish experiment, soon takes on the form of a harrowing reminder of a life best forgotten.
The Act of Killing is a poignant and yet incredibly disturbing piece of cinema, as we enter into the lives of mass murderers who have all been capable of inhuman acts. Yet you are made to feel an inch of sympathy for them, as Oppenheimer manages to play with our perceptions, causing a real confliction of emotions. However every time you feel a shred of empathy, the director is quick to remind you of their brutal nature, such as the scene when we cut to the group discussing their unashamed inclination towards rape. It reminds you of who we are dealing with.
Their candid interviews are captivating, as they pour their hearts out and discuss their personal experiences torturing people. It’s chilling yet so immensely intriguing at the same. We take a fascinating look into how life imitates art, and how art is now imitating life. We’ve gone full circle, as Congo often admits that he was heavily influenced by movie stars in his violent endeavours, and now he is effectively a movie star himself, living out his memories through his favourite Hollywood sequences. To use popular culture to express how a murder was executed seems wrong on so many levels, and yet it’s such an unexpectedly clear insight into how it all occurred. The viewer is able to understand it as we’re visualising it in surroundings familiar to what we know: the movies. By making these murders so grandiose and fabricated is actually making it all the more real.
On the surface, Oppenheimer could be accused of glorifying such horrendous incidents, as we’re giving these callous murderers a platform to show off about their crimes, and considering what they have been guilty of, they certainly aren’t deserving of such a luxury. However reenacting such memories is triggering a range of emotions amongst the gangsters, showing the implications killing people can have on the perpetrators life. Though Congo may be acting happy on the outside, it’s causing him pain within, and he can’t sleep at night for the horrific nightmares he suffers from, and by learning this, it perversely brings a comfort to the viewer.
By acting out the murders, these killers are coming to terms with what they did and realising the inhumanity of it all, so this picture does serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things, even if it does seem a little immoral to begin with. There is a memorable monologue where one of the criminals professes to the needlessness of their cruelty, and you feel that each and every one of them has to go through a similar moment of clarity. These men are without dignity and are embarrassed of their brutal past, and we witness this journey, taking them from being nonchalantly proud in the early stages, to ashamed and uncomfortable by the end.
Every single moment in The Act of Killing serves a purpose and lends itself to the story. We cut from a lavish performance of a mass murder, to them bickering between themselves about the inherent differences between cruelty and sadism, while dressed up and covered in vibrant make-up. You simply can’t afford to miss a second of this production. Much credit must go to Oppenheimer in that respect, putting this picture together incredibly well, edited for the greatest emotional impact. There is a scepticism into whether he has manipulated the chronological time-line to trigger such melancholy, but it works nonetheless. The ending is incredible though, so emotional and excruciating to watch. Oppenheimer simply couldn’t have wished for a more impactful finale.
Hopefully there will be as much of a lasting effect on the killers as this picture has on the viewer, in a feature that isn’t likely to escape you easily. The implementing of one of those already sinister singing fishes certainly doesn’t help proceedings either. You won’t be able to listen to Don’t Worry be Happy in the same way ever again.