Indonesia, 1965: Six army generals are killed in a failed coup. Major general Saharto pins the blame for these murders on Indonesia’s communist party. Ostensibly to protect the country, Saharto uses these murders as justification to seize power from the president and mastermind one of the largest genocides of the past century. Over one million “communists” are rounded up and murdered.
From The Act of Killing’s webpage:
Anybody opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist. This included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese, as well as anybody who struggled for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonialism.
In America, the massacre was regarded as a major ‘victory over communism’ and generally celebrated as good news.
Organized into paramilitary groups, civilians carried out a good deal of the actual killing.
Filmed over seven years, The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo and his associates. Before the massacres of 1965, they were movie theatre gangsters, criminals who hung around theatres and styled themselves after their heroes in American films.
For their participation in the “heroic” slaughter of the communist threat, they are now prestigious figures in Indonesian society and boast of their actions with great relish.
Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, made them a simple offer: reenact and film their memories of the killings in whatever way they choose.
Watching what they create is as fascinating as it is horrifying.
The gangsters picture themselves as modern day Mafioso’s. Their film within the film is a window into these fantasies. Dark and claustrophobic scenes of brutal violence run alongside grand, sweeping musical scenes. Cowboy attire, gangster suits, and brightly coloured dresses adorn men whose hands are stained with the blood of thousands.
One of the killers, Ali Zelkadry, realizes quickly the effect the film will have. While the Indonesian media celebrates Congo for his creation of a more “humane” way of killing, Zelkadry has no illusions about the cruelty he inflicted on others. He reasons, “war crimes are defined by the winners. I am a winner so I can make my own definition.” While he claims to feel no remorse for his actions, he knows the film will reveal the truth of they horrors they have committed. And he is right to feel this because that’s exactly what it does. As the killers reenact their atrocities, the genius of Oppenheimer’s offer becomes clear.
To teach empathy, we tell our children to treat others the way they would want to be treated. Except in those who suffer from serious psychological issues, people want to live and don’t want to hurt.
To be an actor is to have empathy for your subject, to understand what it is like to feel how they feel. To give a convincing performance, method actors imagine their character’s emotional reactions and allow their own emotions to reflect their character.
When Congo sits in place of those he has killed and his friends interrogate him like a “communist,” he feels a sliver of fear. The same fear he put into his victims. He is forced to view his actions from a new perspective. Through this vulnerability, Congo is brought very close to a truth he can’t stomach.
Often, we demonize despots and dictators to the point where they become little more than specters of some unknown evil we can never, as normal people, understand. The Act of Killing shows us more. Watching Congo’s compatriot, Herman Koto, bumble through a national election, promising voters he will bribe them after he wins, does not bring to mind a vicious mass murderer. He comes off as more of a wacky and buffoonish, cross-dressing neighbour. Someone you might avoid eye contact with as you’re coming down the stairs.
Powerful and moving, The Act of Killing dares us to empathize with monsters that are in many ways men, flawed and uncertain of themselves. It is a film that everyone should see.