Los Angeles Film Festival: Documentary Wrap-up, Part III


Editor’s Notes: The following article is part of our coverage for the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://www.lafilmfest.com/ and follow the Los Angeles Film Festival Festival on Twitter at @LAFilmFest.

The Act of Killing (2012)

Chilling and nightmarish, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is on acts of remembering the 1965-1966 government-sanctioned mass killings of Communists in Indonesia. ‘Acts of remembering’ is the operative term because the documentary has as its principal subject one of the former executioners of the mass killings, Anwar Congo, and accompanies him in the making of a feature that reenacts this traumatic national past. The documentary cultivates a fantastical effect as the past and present constantly collide through the film production, with one of Congo’s colleagues cross-dressing and playing female sirens, among other roles. In fact, the film opens with a bizarre scene of Congo and a group of women dancing in the mountains while behind them is a waterfall from the film-within-the-film. But the film’s fantastical, otherworldly feel is only as compelling and morbidly comical as the truth of the killings is devastating. As the documentary reveals following its colourful prologue, this traumatic national past is all the more disturbing because those who either ordered or committed the killings nearly fifty years ago are in positions of power in the country today.

Foremost among the perpetrators in power is the paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth; its members number above three million. Though accused of being a terrorist organisation, Pancasila Youth has very important ties. The scene of the country’s former vice president, Jusuf Kalla donning the Pancasila Youth uniform during one of its rallies is most explicit and emblematic of the organisation’s government connections in particular and the ongoing resonance of the power struggle involved in the 1965-1966 mass killings in general. Congo is affiliated with Pancasila Youth, if not an outright membe,r by appearing in the organisation’s rallies and other events featured throughout the film.

In keeping with the film’s mix of documentary and fiction, one of the organisation’s fetish words is the Indonesian word for ‘gangster,’ preman, derived from the Dutch word for ‘free man,’ vrijman. Those with whom Oppenheimer speaks about the mass killings are proud of their past actions and do not hesitate in saying so. ‘Preman’ comes into play because they often liken themselves to film gangsters and their iconic mystique. Such is the case with Congo. At one point, he relates to Oppenheimer of scalping film tickets to screenings of Hollywood films when he was younger, like a small-time gangster. At another point, he shares how he killed Communists in the building right across the street from the movie theatre and demonstrates the method of killing that he and his colleagues decided upon to make the killings less bloody but more efficient: garrote wire. In this way, the film shares elements with Rithy Panh’s 2003 documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which has former executioners and torturers reenact how they interrogated, tortured, and killed the prisoners in the S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Like Panh, Oppenheimer moves between performance and language to puncture this disquieting tense of past-present, alternating between the film production of which Congo is a part and interviews with Congo and his colleagues.

The film-within-the-film reenacts interrogations, the pillaging and burning of a village (with the actual village’s inhabitants as extras), tortures and killings, some of which become all too real in conjuring up the past (feelings) in the present for certain participants. One such reenactment is the interrogation scene with Congo’s neighbour, whose Chinese stepfather was killed by the Pancasila Youth in the 1960s. Another is the interrogation-torture scene designed like a 1940s gangster film, a variation of which has Congo play the victim’s role. Particularly moving and upsetting are the children who participate in the reenactments and become so emotionally involved in what is being performed. Yet for the Pancasila Youth, as the name suggests, having children participate is part of the purpose of making the film-within-the-film, so that they inherit and do not forget such history. The 1965-1966 killings are a national open secret, and the film-within-the-film is to preserve this history and ‘victory.’ For a local news channel that is obviously biased towards Pancasila Youth and its extreme ideology (the audience is composed entirely of its members), Congo and company speak openly and affably about their participation in the killings and their will do to it again, if need be.

With Oppenheimer’s detached eye witnessing voluntary testimonies fictionalised (the film-within-the-film) and documentary (the interviews), centered on Congo, the film becomes all the more unnerving because it shows how this open secret of mass killings manifests itself in contemporary Indonesia in multiple ways: the perpetrators in positions of power, from local to national levels; the profound stigma that people still associate with the word ‘Communist’; and small, everyday acts that had fed into the build-up of emotion against the Communists and ethnic Chinese and culminated with the mass killings, and continue in the present day, such as Congo and company taking money outright from ethnic Chinese Indonesians to fund Pancasila Youth events.

Oppenheimer has the fictionalised and the documentary, the past’s resonance in the present, and the surrealistic and the banal, crystallise most powerfully, physically, and morally through Congo. Towards the end of the film, Congo has a physically ill reaction the second time he visits the building located in front of the movie theatre where he had killed numbers of people, in direct contrast to his first visit. Given Oppenheimer’s editing of events, Congo’s reaction is directly related to not only playing a victim in the film production, and thus experiencing what it must have felt like to have been on the opposite side of his role, but also watching the footage of himself as a victim. While he tells Oppenheimer that he was able to feel like his victims, Oppenheimer is quick to reply that the case is different: Congo knew that he was in a film, whereas his victims knew that they were going to die.

95/100 ~ AMAZING. Simply extraordinary, from its disorienting opening scenes to the disturbing (non)content of the end credits.

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Rowena Santos Aquino

Sr. Staff Film Critic
Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.
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