Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s ten-year endeavor The Act of Killing has become one of the most blunt documentaries of a devastating age. When Anwar Congo, a former executioner and gangster, was asked to make a film of what they had done, he was thrilled. Anwar was an executioner of one of the most notorious death squads and many fear his name to this day. Him and his inferior, Herman Koto, took to the streets to find participants to help develop this film to glorify their violent past.
Anwar takes the audience to the roof of their old kill sight and talks about how he invented a new way of killing people because beating them to death was becoming too bloody. Instead he used a wire and would suffocate his captives to death with only minimum blood from the wire viciously digging into the victim’s flesh. Anwar and Congo retold their stories on this roof as they danced and sung where thousands of nameless victims were brutally murdered.
While not backed officially by the government, Anwar and his old partner Adil Zulkadry revealed how the government knew exactly what they were doing but never once attempted to stop them. During the 1960s, the death squads in Indonesia participated in the genocide of a mass of more than 500,000 communists and local Chinese. Because of this, Anwar and other members of the death squads are viewed as national heroes living comfortably in blissful pleasure.
While the film seems to start off rather slowly, the audience is thrown into a world of discomfort and fear. As more and more scenes come together a broader picture of these men and their crimes are being painted. The audience is forced down this rabbit hole into the bizarre and untamed minds of the killers. Furthered by disorienting hand-held camera shots and the cinematic reenactments, clear and static scenic shots of the Indonesian landscape, placed next to the intense clips of violence, the audience can never expect what they’ll be a witness of.
One of the most insightful aspects of the film is the transformation of Anwar. While others wish to reveal the great service they did for the country, He seems to be experience an inner turmoil when he is being faced so often with the truth of what had been done and what he had done. No longer is he dancing or singing or even speaking as much as the others. When he speaks, he starts to become much more somber and heavy than he had been in the past.
Scenes become more intense as the film moves forward. There are no longer clips of dancing and singing but rather there are clips of shocking horror. The seams of the film start to disintegrate as the film moves forward. In one particular scene, while Anwar’s neighbor says too much about his personal experience of finding his father’s corpse after the gangs killed him, Adil starts to express his own fears. He fears that if this film is shown to the nation that people will soon realize they were the cruel ones, not the communists. It is that scene that thrusts the audience into the harsh reality of what has been done and its devastating affects.
The intensity of the film never leaves the audience. After Anwar has a breakdown during the filming with him as the captive, he returns back to the roof of their old building and once again talks about what he had done there. However, this time he no longer relishes in the acts that he has done but goes as far as becoming sick as he starts to recollect memories. The viewer is only left with the haunting image of Anwar walking out the door, leaving the camera behind with the understanding that all the fear and anguish he felt in that devastating moment was only a fraction of his victims’.