The Act of Killing (MA). Director: Joshua Oppenheimer. 159 minutes
The timing of this 2012 documentary's theatrical release in Australia is intriguing. It coincidentally follows on the heels of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's triumphal visit to Indonesia, and his meeting there with President Susilo Bambung Yudhoyono, to discuss among other things bilateral strategies for dealing with the 'problem' of asylum seekers and related humanitarian issues. The sprawling and occasionally surreal documentary The Act of Killing is a greatly unsettling film in its own right, but against this contemporary geopolitical backdrop it is nothing short of frightening.
American-British filmmaker Oppenheimer turns his camera on Anwar Congo, who in 1965 went from plying the black market trade in movie tickets to running an anti-communist death squad during the transition to the New Order military dictatorship of Suharto. Congo personally executed some 1000 people, in gruesome fashion. Oppenheimer invites him and his cohorts to relive those days, and they do so, via candid interviews, frank conversations that are captured by the fly-on-the-wall Oppenheimer — and through the ebullient production of films that recreate their exploits in the style of Hollywood westerns, musicals, mafia and war films.
The dapper and charismatic Congo is clearly, deeply disturbed; traumatised, yet oblivious to his trauma, or unable to name it. He blithely demonstrates the sadistic method of garrotting prisoners that he devised, after beheading them proved to be too messy. He is genuinely perplexed by the nightmares that keep him awake at night, and admits to having used drugs and alcohol to help him 'forget'. Not just to forget though, but to 'fly', and in fact to 'dance'; at which point he proceeds to perform an elegant cha-cha on the very ground where many of his executions took place, grinning for the camera as it follows this performance for excruciatingly long moments.
The Act of Killing is both gruelling and compelling, due largely to the experience of watching Congo draw closer to appreciating the unassailable evil of his past. Re-enacting a massacre, and witnessing the re-traumatisation of the villagers who have been enlisted as extras; participating in an execution scenario, with himself portraying the victim; these experiences trigger palpable, empathetic responses in Congo that he is unable to recognise, let alone deal with. These eventually bring the horrors he has swallowed for so long, literally to the brink of regurgitation. This is a deeply disturbing portrait of corrupted humanity coming face to face with its own nature.
Yet Congo's growth, such as it is, stands in pointed contrast with the staunch hubris of others in the film. One of his former colleagues displays a dispassionate pragmatism that is the closest thing this documentary offers to pure evil. He is well aware of the extent of the cruelty that they were responsible for, and the lies they told to justify it. He in fact encourages Congo to accept and embrace that reality, not in the pursuit of absolution but simply for the sake of his own mental wellbeing. Challenged by Oppenheimer about morality, he scoffs; the Geneva Convention, he opines, is merely 'today's morality'; morality is changeable, and in Indonesia the end justified the means. 'Take me to The Hague', he says, in haughty tones that suggest he might well have added, 'I dare you'.
There is a cautionary tale in all of this, for modern governments engaging with Indonesia on bilateral strategies relating to humanitarian issues. Congo is shown to appear on a breakfast television talk show, where the young female host commends his 'achievements', to the rapturous applause of the studio audience. Congo is revered to the point of celebrity, as the founding father of the vast right-wing paramilitary group the Pancasila Youth. Many of his death squad contemporaries hold positions of power and influence. The Act of Killing demonstrates a direct continuum between the evils of the past and the present political reality.
In Australia the reality of ongoing Indigenous disadvantage is proof of the effect of past atrocities on the structure of ensuing society. Likewise, despite some democratic progress in recent times, Indonesia's unhealed past remains a source of serious human rights problems. On both counts, the Abbott Government would do well to take note.
Tim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.