The documentary “The Act of Killing” is probably the most horrifying and, at the same time, compelling movie you’re likely to see this year. It’s difficult to endure, yet impossible not to watch.
First, a little history: In Indonesia in 1965, the military took over the government after a failed coup attempt, and army and paramilitary death squads set about exterminating suspected communists. Within a year, an estimated 1 million “communists” — a broadly defined group that included ethnic Chinese, dissidents and anyone who spoke up against the military — were slaughtered, many of them tortured before dying. (Oh, and, yes, the Lyndon Johnson administration secretly backed the military.)
The death-squad leaders were hailed as heroes. They are still revered in Indonesian politics, as evidenced by footage of leaders sucking up to one of the biggest paramilitary groups, the Pancasila Youth, which is 3 million strong.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer introduces us to three of these death-squad leaders and allows them to detail their murderous exploits in any cinematic form they wish. And here’s where “The Act of Killing” takes its turn toward the grotesquely fascinating.
Two of the leading figures in the massacres, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, got their start selling black-market movie tickets, and they share a love of old movies. They claim inspiration from Hollywood gangster movies in their killing techniques, to the point where Indonesian politicos have corrupted the word “gangster” into a title of honor.
So Congo and Koto opt to re-enact the killings in the style of their favorite movie genres, gangster flicks and musical spectacles. This leads to some surreal sights, such as Congo and a cross-dressing Koto with dancing girls under a waterfall as the easy-listening hit “Born Free” blares over them.
As filming continues, it dawns on these killers that they are writing a more truthful version of Indonesian history. One of Congo’s old colleagues, Ali Zulkandry, fears exposure will put the lie to the government’s anti-communist propaganda. “Not everything true should be made public,” he argues. “I believe even God has secrets.” (Zulkandry remains defiant, comparing the Indonesian massacres to George W. Bush’s imprisonment of Iraqis and Afghanis in Guantanamo Bay.)
For Congo, though, those secrets become too much to bear. As he portrays one of his interrogation victims, he seems to grasp for the first time the cruelty he inflicted, and the contemplation of the truth literally makes him retch. You don’t feel sorry for Congo — it’s not as if he jumps on a plane for The Hague to turn himself in to the International Criminal Court. But you do see him at last comprehend the magnitude of his guilt.
Oppenheimer and his crew, many of them Indonesian locals listed in the closing credits as anonymous for their safety, create a chilling movie that upends the conventions of a documentary. One might quibble about the amount of historical detail, or whether Oppenheimer has exploited his subjects. But the results of “The Act of Killing,” which are emotionally as gruesome as a car crash and just as hard to turn away from, reveal a deeper truth about guilt and responsibility that will haunt anyone who sees the film.
‘The Act of Killing’
A grim, compelling documentary in which Indonesian death-squad leaders confront their past killings.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens today.
Rating • Not rated, but probably R for descriptions of horrific violence, and for language.
Running time • 122 minutes; mostly in Indonesian, with subtitles.