THE ACT OF KILLING co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous third person (Indonesia, 2012)

"War crimes are defined by the winners" - Adi Zulkadry (Indonesian death squad leader)

akillingA conventional documentary about the Indonesian death squads of 1965-6 would probably have used archive news footage to show the genocide and gone on to explain its impact on the families of survivors. I doubt that such an approach would have had the same impact and shock value as The Act of Killing.

For Joshua Oppenheimer and crew (many working anonymously) adopted an altogether riskier, and more controversial approach whereby the perspective is switched from the victims to perpetrators.

It affords the murderers the luxury of reenacting in cinematic terms the murderous roles they played. These self-proclaimed ‘gangsters’ and warped freedom fighters were inspired by American movies so were more than happy to turn their real life horror show into a film.

Not surprisingly, giving a voice to such monsters has been attacked in some quarters. The Christian Science Monitor and critic Nick Fraser condemn the way these cold-blooded killers can glory in their bloody actions as though they were something to be proud of.

Killers acting as victims -  Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

Killers acting as victims – Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

However ,the majority of critics rightly recognise the film’s achievement. The documentary may have missed out on Oscars glory but it won the BAFTA and The Guardian named it as the best film of 2013 in all categories.

Mark Kermode, writing in The Observer, described the bizarre blend of musical, western and crime genres as being “insanely surreal and distressingly domestic”.

I confess that the purpose of the dancing-girls gyrating in front of large scale model of a fish was lost on me but the other sequences are terrifyingly unambiguous. The dismembering of a teddy bear to symbolise the slaughter of a baby in front of its mother illustrates how the killers’ barbarity knew no bounds.

The opening caption sets the scene: “In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anyone opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million ‘communists’ were murdered”.

Joshua Oppenheime and Christine Cynn

Yet, as Oppenheimer has explained, this is not just about the country’s past. The mass rallies of the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organisation who wear gaudy orange fatigues was formed in 1981 and its members still follow the twisted values established by General Suharto’s purge.

The infamous death squad leaders who dominate the documentary, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, are regarded in such quarters as heroes. In contrast with the fat, ugly and stupid Herman Koto they are urbane, articulate and, for the most part, unrepentant.

Only at the end does Anwar appear to acknowledge that he may have done something bad but these scenes strike a false note. He sheds crocodile tears and his dry retching looks suspiciously like the stage acting of a vain man desperately trying to save face; like an atheist making a death-bed confession just to be on the safe side.

One user reviewer at Metacritic questions the movie’s motive saying “All those men are still walking free and no punishment has been taken against them”. Yet the very fact that these individuals have committed crimes against humanity but have not been brought to justice is surely one of the main reasons why the film was made.

Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

Adi’s statement that “we were allowed to do it” is an indictment of the government and media who are shown to be complicit in the massacre. Writing in Slate, one of the co-producers Errol Morris, suggests that the removal of so many communists (somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million) was also quite convenient to the U.S, who were keen to justify their own bloody military campaign in Vietnam.

More than once, the point is made that these men were hired to do the dirty work of the state. The level of hypocrisy is evident when a visiting politician witnesses a killer pretending to drink the blood of a decapitated victim. He thinks that this presents an unacceptable level of sadism even though he at pains to assure the men that he approves of the wholesale murder of communists : “wipe them out but in a humane way”.

Adi Zulkadry’s comment that “Not everything that’s true should be made public” is a valid one but  the ‘truth’ this movie tells about corrupt political regimes and humankind’s unlimited capacity for cruelty is something we need to be continuously reminded of .