Although people address director Joshua Oppenheimer behind the camera multiple times, he only interferes in The Act of Killing once. "Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because you knew it's only a film. They knew they were being killed." He's talking to Anwar Congo, a former Indonesian death-squad leader, responsible personally for killing over 1000 people suspected of being communists during the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. Anwar is watching himself portray a victim on screen in a reenactment of one of his own killings. He remarks, "But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to, Josh." This scene, coming right near the end of the movie, is the first time Anwar is moved by what he's done. Several minutes later, in the final scene, Anwar doubles over, retching violently, unable to purge his body but incapable of stopping, when he revisits a location he used to carry out his crimes.
How Joshua Oppenheimer made The Act of Killing is a miracle. This is a towering achievement of cinema, one of its greatest landmarks, and deserves to be hailed as a cornerstone example of the possibility of the medium. Killing and genocide is a topic we've become all too familiar with, dismissing the violence with a nonchalant wave of the hand. So Oppenheimer doesn't focus on the genocide itself. He follows Anwar and his friends, notably Adi Kulkadry, as they make a movie, recreating their favorite killings in the style of Hollywood movies. A disquieting attack on the violence portrayed by the media, Oppenheimer opens the doors for philosophical debate on the nature of violence and crime, able to call out those who need to be held responsible without directly pointing fingers. Perhaps he asks the perpetrators to point their own fingers at themselves. Some of Anwar's friends are unwavering in their beliefs, ranging from claiming they had no choice, to the killings were wrong but there's nothing that can be done about it. Others worry about how the documentary might alter the rest of the world's perception of them.
What struck me was just how complex these men's morality was. Most of them could out-debate a university classroom of philosophy students without batting an eye. Right vs. wrong, justice vs. injustice, free-will vs. government coercion, are just some of the points of view the killers can argue from. Oppenheimer has since called out the US, in particular, the World Bank, for providing over $30 billion dollars to the Suharto regime over the past 30 years and he shows no signs of relenting. In the Western world it is much easier to dismiss actions that happened 3 decades ago on the other side of the world, and so we are left with a dismissive attitude about war and genocide, but here, Oppenheimer directly confronts us with the reality of what it is like to live under oppressive situations. During the reenactment scenes, Anwar and his friends get so frighteningly violent I was worried I was about to witness an actual murder on screen, and yet none of them for a second doubts the others. They tie wires around each other's necks, hold knives to their throats, blindfold each other and yank each other around by the hair, and nobody even blinks. When portraying victims, they capture the absolute terror and paralyzing fear, and then shrug it off like its nothing as soon as somebody stops the action. Then they discuss the morality of what they did and go dancing.
Perhaps this is what makes Anwar's final confession so profoundly impacting. This man, who has recreated his own murders in extravagant Hollywood fashion - and oh, what fashion! The reenactments, besides being horrifying, are achingly beautiful and well-constructed - and bragged about his acts to his own grandchildren, even calling them in to watch their grandfather get beat up, is left with his own sickness and he can't even confront it. One of his friends brushes off his acts. "The people we killed, there's nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better, but it works: I've never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares." There's a moment in the film, probably a different moment for each audience member, where you realize you're not watching a dramatic movie, but these people standing right before you, these people who could be your relatives or your friends or your neighbours, are directly responsible for a massacre. It shocks you to realize it, that you've been having a conversation with a man who has murdered thousands of people, just because the government told him he could. This man is just like you and me. It serves as a stark reminder that crime isn't committed by dark forces of magic, but by regular people who live among us. And in the same way, that beauty and courage come from the same ordinary people, just average human beings. The movie Anwar and his friends make is startling. It is not sadistic, but rather a well-crafted work of art, no different than Hollywood films. It's no more particularly violent than a gangster flick. Other sequences move Anwar to tears with their beauty when he watches the final result.
The fact that The Act of Killing was made at all is an incredible accomplishment, but the notion that it could contain so much insight into the human condition while being politically relevant but not manipulative or obvious is truly something extraordinary. This is one of the most compelling movies of the year, it's runtime flashes by in an instant. This is a new golden age for documentary filmmaking and it is an exciting time. In fifty years, a hundred years, maybe more, The Act of Killing should rank right up there at the top of the list of the most influential, and important movies.