History is written by the victors and in the documentary The Act of Killing, the violent memories of real-life Indonesian death squad leaders are re-created in a surreal filmmaking landscape. The importance of this doco cannot be overstated in exposing a corrupt regime, highlighting the dangers of propaganda and holding a warped mirror to the monsters that walk the Earth as free men.
When the Indonesian President Sukarno was overthrown during the 30 September Movement of 1965, groups of street thugs and journalists led by Anwar Congo helped the army kill thousands of enemies of the new military power who were labelled as communists.
An elderly Congo and his posse are tasked with making a low-budget fictional film called Arsan dan Aminah to tell their story, and here lies the genius of director Joshua Oppenheimer's doco. Under the guise of a film production, Oppenheimer has amazing access to his subjects who reveal insights into the 30 September Movement. From behind the scenes of the production we see Congo's pride on display and he has a youthful exuberance for his age. It's as if his body has absorbed the life from all the people who died at his hands. In one moment he brags about the popular method of killing by strangling victims with a metal wire and then proceeds to happily dance on the site where it took place. It’s frightening that there’s no stain on Congo’s conscience. Congo and his gang's perceptions of the past and their actions start to get perverse when they begin to act out their experiences. They conduct interrogation scenes dressed as gangsters in suits, chase down communists in pink cowboy hats and there are dreamlike musical sequences where Congo envisions a nirvana where all his victims now live, as if their deaths were some form of liberation. Oppenheimer plays close attention to the interactions between the men as they reflect on their misdemeanours and there is an emotionally jarring moment where an extra working on the production recounts to Congo the night when his father went missing during the purge of communists.
Congo watches footage of Arsan dan Aminah and the cracks start to appear in his cocky exterior. As the shards of his brash personality begin to be stripped away, a very weak man is exposed underneath. What’s revealed is a man brainwashed by a government to believe he was truly doing the right thing by killing his fellow countrymen. It never gives the guy a free pass, but shows the succession of propaganda instilled by a government to silence anyone who was in resistance and to instigate violence as a by-product. You see the flow through effects of a corrupt system, with many men who carried out atrocious acts of murder rewarded with positions of power in Indonesian society. The prominence of a dominant paramilitary organisation called Pemuda Pancasila, which grew out of the death squads, shows an ugly underbelly still in existence to this day.
The Act of Killing deserves high accolades for using filmmaking as a tool for justice. Oppenheimer and his team have made one of the most important documentaries of the century. I haven’t lived long enough to make this bold claim, and it might sound crazy, but it’s going to be tough for someone to top a doco as powerful as this one in my lifetime.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies