Movie Review: The Act of Killing

In 1965 Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who previously lead the national revolution against Dutch Colonialism, was overthrown by the military led by the right wing General Suharto.

At the time communism was making an imposing spread south from China into Vietnam and Cambodia. The military recruited small time gangsters into paramilitary squads who helped kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in less than a year.

The group, Pancasila Youth, still hold great influence and terrible fluro camoflage fatigues in Indonesia today. The organization is estimated to have about three million members.

In The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer follows one Pancasila Youth member, now in his 60s, Anwar Congo.

Congo and his boys used to hustle black market movie tickets in front of the theatres. They loved cinema, especially the big talking American kind with James Dean, John Wayne and James Cagney.

They had swagger on leaving the cinema, they liked to imagine themselves up there on the big screen.

Gangster-ness seems to exacerbate through the media. The gangster DNA must have a direct line to our egos: We’ve see the celebrity in Capone; Biggie Smalls and VH1’s Mob Wives – they all loved to showboat. Congo still struts about in zoot suits, colourful shirts and panama hats as if he’s a Cherry Poppin’ Daddy.

On seizing control of Indonesia, the new Suharto government pumped anti-communist propaganda throughout the country. In doing so, Congo and his friends were shown another type of film, a propaganda film that portrayed (rightly or wrongly) communists as evil mass murderers who stifled progression, freedom and money and who boycotted American films. To Congo’s gang, Communists were the anti-gangsters.

Throughout The Act of Killing, Congo and numerous other subjects reiterate to Oppenheimer’s camera that ‘Gangster’ simply means ‘Free Man’. It’s a point of view that seems drummed into them to the point of it moving beyond a word, to become a mantra and to an excuse.

The paramilitary squad recruited them, giving them arms to become the enemy not only to communists but all Chinese. These free men were fighting the good fight.

They’d cross the boulevard after the cinema to their ‘office of blood’ for nightly killings, interrogating their victims above the local newspaper offices where the editor would sit in on the interrogations to report and glorify the results. The Big Ed boasts he often made the call for execution himself.

Congo nonchalantly tells of killing thousands of suspected communists on the rooftop throughout 1965-66.

Outside of this odd, highly corrupt bubble where Congo and his friends are still praised on daytime TV, the mass murders should be considered war crimes with many members called to stand trial in The Hague, but so far they’ve never been called to justice.

As one of Congo’s accomplices puts it: ‘War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.’

Eager to continue glorifying the freedom of Indonesia, Congo and his merry men agree not only to be interviewed by Oppenheimer, but to act out their murders, adapted to fit into different film genres they loved; gangster, western, musical.

Shit gets weird as they write their own scripts and scenes including dream sequences. They watch the rushes, analyzing where they didn’t act dead enough or are missing a level of authenticity.

The dress ups seem to push the murders and their responsibility beyond arms-length. The killings didn’t happen in the Wild West, so why is Congo dressed as a cowboy and his fat sidekick in bordello-drag?

The whole process seems to make a mockery of the crimes, until Congo finally, in a compelling and cathartic way, through the rushes on his TV screen, realizes the severity of his actions. Forty-five years of guilt comes flooding back. And how it unfolds is equally weird to watch.

It illustrates cinema’s influence on the young and impressionable, especially at a time and place where people were less used to decoding the constant and varied media messages we are today. Yet get them involved and watch them sympathise. – it’s basically subjecting the bully to glee club and watching him cry, in touch with his sensitive side.

The Act of Killing is executive produced by The Fog of War’s Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, director of Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, among others. The film is in limited release through Madman Entertainment.



Review by Colin Delaney