sat 19/10/2019

The Act of Killing | reviews, news & interviews

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Genocidal killers re-enact their crimes for a strange and startling documentary

Ready for my close-up: state killers Adi Zulkadry (left) and Anwar Congo restage their bloody past

If the Nazis had remained in power, and the Holocaust been hushed up and excused, how might an SS officer feel in his autumn years about those slaughters in Belorussian clearings? What happens when the culture that demanded mass murder simply continues, and the murderers are treated as heroes, free to bask in their rewards for half a century?

Such questions arise as, having been arrested whenever he tried to interview victims of Indonesia’s Sixties anti-Communist Terror (in which up to 2.5 million were killed with Western complicity), director Joshua Oppenheimer instead asked some of the gangsters and paramilitaries responsible to talk, and restage their acts on film in any style they wished. One salutary lesson is that when propaganda is pervasive or convenient it works, and the people who commission and carry out slaughter often truly believe they’re right. So these sadistic old stagers are delighted to put the happiest, bloodiest days of their lives on-screen, fearful their part in history will be forgotten.

Oppenheimer spent almost eight years on The Act of Killing, and is viewed as friend and, through his camera, eventually confessor to his star, Anwar Congo. This dapper, likeable old man reimagines his crimes as gangster third-degree, World War Two interrogation, gory horror and a musical fantasia of forgiveness by his victims (pictured above and below). The scenes could be kitsch or comic; less so if you’ve seen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, based partly on the cheaply disturbing Thai ghost films - and anti-Communist massacres - of his childhood memory. And not at all for Anwar. Playing the part of one of the hundreds he tortured then throttled, sickening empathy dawns. Returning to the warehouse where he led this work, something deep inside him demands to be vomited.

It’s unsettling to watch a killer’s haunted discomfort as Oppenheimer lets his imagination loose. But this “journey” every hack TV doc has to take shouldn’t distract from the bigger Indonesian picture he paints. Here, an old newspaper publisher blithely discusses rounding up victims to be killed, and blackening their names in his paper as required. A paramilitary leader goes on his extortionate rounds, and chortles with his cronies about the good old days raping young teenage girls. “Gangsters”, everyone from TV presenters to the country’s vice-president keep telling the public, as if for the first time, means “free men”. Freedom requires these gangs of murderers.

A more sophisticated old friend of Anwar, Adi, isn’t haunted by, as Elvis Costello wrote of Margaret Thatcher, “every tiny detail”. The trick, he notes, “is to find a way not to feel guilty”. And he’s well-versed in the political relativity of evil, when not trudging gloomily round the mall behind his wife. “War crimes are defined by the winner,” he states, citing the American Indians and George Bush. “I’m the winner. So I can make my own definition.” With fear of Indonesian “Islamists” replacing Communists, these are still the people Britain wants in power. Our own reluctance to see and punish our national crimes, from Kenya to Iraq, can also be glimpsed in this film’s bizarrely revealing mirror.

Watch the trailer for The Act of Killing

Playing the part of one of the hundreds he throttled, sickening empathy dawns

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.