I had not intended to put up another post for a while, but after listening to an interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up, I decided to watch Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing. What I found compelled me to write a review here immediately. I am not an avid viewer of documentaries, but the concept behind this film stood out. We not only follow the life of an aged murderer, but we see a moral journey wherein a murderer realizes, in his twilight years, the devastation and cruelty he committed when young.
This trailer does not do the documentary justice, so I highly encourage you to find The Act of Killing on Netflix and just start streaming it from start to finish.
The film starts with Anwar showing off a rooftop upon which he describes, in gruesome detail, the ways in which he killed several people. He reminisces how he created a more efficient way of killing people so that there was less blood. Without getting into the details, the act involves a wire to strangle and choke the victim.
Right after describing this act, Anwar dances, smiles, and shows a very flamboyant personality. The entire persona is a charade. His shallow character is inspired by an opaque affection for American cinema. Throughout real life and in his own cinematic portrayal, we find Anwar smoking cigars, dressing like a 1930s gangster, wearing expensive suits, and revering Al Pacino, his favorite Hollywood actor.
The relevant details surrounding the mass murders begin to unfold throughout the film. Knowing nothing when I opened Netflix and started streaming, The Act of Killing leaves no room to doubt that the government applauds and reinforces the narrative that these killings were meant—and indeed succeeded, from their point of view—to save the country. Between youth militia rallies, awful propaganda films, daytime talk shows, discussions with newspaper editors, governors, and even the vice president of Indonesia, nothing is hidden about these acts.
The director asks Anwar and his friends to tell his story through a film. Through filming the several scenes, each of which is a story from a different conspirator, we meet other individuals who deal with their history differently. One man considered the acts part of ‘war,’ and hence had no regret, torment, or nightmares about his experience (or so he states). When pressed that countries called the acts war crimes, he becomes extremely defensive and states how yesterday’s morality will differ from tomorrow’s morality. In one sequence, this man has a normal day shopping at the mall with his wife and daughter. The degree to which the normalcy of their lives intertwine with the memory of the grim acts is astounding. One moment, the characters will be having a normal conversation, and the next recounting the good ol’ days when they could go up and grope and rape any girl they wanted by interrogating and accusing her of being a communist.
As filming progresses, Anwar and friends begin to come to grips with their awful actions. This adds an interesting moral dimension to the documentary. The longer that the filming continues, the more disturbed Anwar becomes by the re-enactments. In opposition to the first glance we receive, Anwar’s gaze gets deeper and more thoughtful as the film progresses. The cognitive dissonance that Anwar has held for decades becomes more salient, not only to the viewer, but to Anwar. In one scene, he can’t seem to conjure the right amount of ferocity because of the terrified faces on the women and children actors. After shooting that outdoor scene, the camera transitions to Anwar with his grandchildren, playing with ducks. One of the grandchildren accidentally hurts the duck by smacking it in shock, and Anwar has the child apologize loudly and sincerely for hurting the duck. This scene, above most of the others, shines a spotlight on Anwar’s humanity. In his interactions with his grandchildren and the animals, it is hard to believe that Anwar actually killed so many people in such grueling ways. Yet it provides an important moral point. Rather than portraying Anwar as a single-faced, homogenous monster, we see a man who has raised a family, has several friends, an active social life, and has genuine concern for the well-being of animals and humans. If there is anything to take away from this film, it is this point. Even those who have committed the worst acts are not categorically bad in all aspects of life.
If there is one scene that I must recommend watching it is the torture and death scene in which Anwar plays the part of one of his victims. He is tied to a chair blind-folded, interrogated, beat, tortured, and ultimately killed within the scene. When performing the death scene, Anwar barely makes it through the first take, a mock version of the wire contraption enclosing his throat. When asked to film it a second time, Anwar cannot finish. We see a man who has had the epiphany of the monstrous things he did.
Toward the end of the film, Anwar is asked to give his response while watching the aforementioned scene. At one moment, he states that he could feel what his victims felt, and how he had lost his dignity. The director points out that he didn’t really feel what the victims felt. Anwar knows that what he saw was a movie, but his victims knew that they were going to die. To this, Anwar cries.
The film ends back on the top of the rooftop where it began, with Anwar describing the killings that took place. Rather than the clean, bright rooftop with Anwar dancing and showing off his killing equipment, we are shown the result of the project. Anwar is on the top of rooftop at night, with weeds overgrown to be chest-high, looking around dumbstruck. He shows the wire, with no enthusiasm, other than to say it is one of the easiest ways to take a life. He retches several times, and finally faces what he’s done.
This is a film that I think everyone should see, even if you do not have a stomach for morbid topics or documentaries. The Act of Killing provides a rare, poignant insight into a fundamental moral dilemma that only a documentary can show. I hope to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film titled The Look of Silence, in which one of the children of the victims brings his story to his parent’s killers.