By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 3, 2013)
“At first, we beat them to death… [but] there was too much blood…to avoid the blood, I [devised] this system,” explains former Indonesian government death squad leader Anwar Congo, the “star” of Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary The Act of Killing, and then helpfully offers an instructive (and macabre) demonstration of his patented garroting method (with the assistance of a stick, some metal wire, and a giggly “victim”).
Then, the eupeptic Congo breaks into an impromptu cha-cha dance.
This is but one of many surreal moments in Oppenheimer’s film (exec produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog). Congo is a self-described “gangster” who claims to have personally snuffed out 1,000 lives during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 “communists” that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government. As a series of like-minded regimes have maintained power ever since, men like Congo and “co-star” Herman Koto (Congo’s compatriot and a paramilitary leader), who would be considered war criminals anywhere else, are feted as heroes by their government and worshiped like rock stars by paramilitary youth groups.
As it turns out, Congo and Koto were not only quite amenable to skipping down memory lane happily revisiting the scenes of their crimes, but offered to take things even one step further. In a pitch straight out of (the ever-prescient) Network, they generously offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. Needless to say, this counter-intuitive mash-up of hard-hitting investigative journalism and ebullient “Hey, I have a barn, let’s put on a show!” participation from the very parties that the filmmaker aims to expose could be enough to make some viewer’s heads explode.
However, sandwiched between reality TV moments like watching the narcissistic Congo and Koto studiously dissecting their “dailies”, rehearsing torture scenes (for which they can no doubt double as their own special consultants) or recruiting palpably alarmed civilians to play doomed “communists”, Oppenheimer slowly exorcises the ugly truths behind their braggadocio. It goes without saying that there had to be some form of major systemic collusion going on to enable a state-sanctioned genocide of this magnitude.
For example, it turns out that Congo and Koto’s own killing spree was facilitated with help from an old pal named Ibrahim Sinik, a “successful newspaper publisher” who used to interrogate suspected communists in his newsroom. As Congo recalls, “When he had the information, he’d say ‘Guilty!’ and we’d take them away and kill them.” After all, as Sinik himself adds, “Why would I do such grunt work?! One wink from me and they’re dead!”
I know what you’re thinking: These men are morally reprehensible, untouchable and beyond redemption, so why indulge them this sick, self-aggrandizing movie star fantasy? (Picture the warm and fuzzy feeling you’d get if the next Powerball winner turned out to be one of those 97 year-old former Nazi camp guards). What’s Oppenheimer’s point? Is he crazy? He’s crazy all right. Like a fox. Because something extraordinary happens to one of our “heroes” when he insists on playing one of his own victims in an execution reenactment. Something clicks, triggering a hint of what we call “empathy”. As we know, that is the gateway drug to “conscience”.
The moment of epiphany is telegraphed by a semantic slip. Through most of the film, the victims are referred to as “communists”. But at this crucial moment, one of the killers calls them human beings. Those two words open the floodgates; and the crushing enormity of his own horrible deeds makes him physically ill. Oppenheimer’s unblinking camera lingers on this hunched-over, violently retching old man, now stripped of swaggering bravado and revealed to be no more than a wretched creature as pathetic and pitiable as Tolkien’s Gollum. Still beyond redemption, perhaps, but recognizably human.