Back in 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published. It was a book based upon research, interviews, and relationships forged with the murderous criminals who killed the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Truman Capote, as is alleged, ended up forming a morally troubling relationship, in particular with Richard Hickock. Documented in Bennett Miller’s masterful Capote, this relationship formed between Hickock and Capote is based upon Capote ingratiating himself with the killer, lying to him to gain secrets in order to complete his story. At about the same time as Capote was researching his book, across the world in Indonesia, a mass murder was taking place. After a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian Military (perhaps motivated by the state government) formed death squads who went across the country murdering purported communists, and ethnic Chinese, among others. Up to 1 Million individuals were murdered in one of the largest mass murders of the twentieth century. 40 years following the atrocities, Joshua Oppenheimer, in researching the events in Indonesia, somehow managed to befriend himself to some of the death squad leaders in order to get the first hand account of what went on. I don’t know what Oppenheimer had to do in order to get the stories and point of view he has achieved in The Act of Killing. He may have had to lie about his intent, much like Capote may have had to do. But one thing’s for certain: The methods justify the end result.
Oppenheimer’s documentary took 7 years to complete. He places his camera amidst the lives of a small handful of death squad leaders who are still living relatively prosperous lives. In their own country, they are seen as heroes who purged the country of a ravenous scourge. I must admit, I have heard very little, if anything, about the mass murders prior to seeing this film. In relation to the Cold War that was ongoing at the time, it’s not hard to believe that this sort of story could have been twisted by journalists into propagandistic headlines. Oppenheimer mainly focuses on Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in North Sumatra, who in the 1960’s, were movie theater ticket sellers, who somehow became death squad leaders, personally killing up to 1,000 people. Their passion for movies continues to this day, as Oppenheimer films Anwar and Adi’s desire to make a commemoration of the killings that they performed over 40 years ago. With a strange glee, the two men, along with other volunteers, spend much of the film in costume, playing out scenes from gangster films and westerns as they re-enact murders they committed. In one horrific scene, they stage a large scale “attack” on a village, with fires, and screaming women and children running for their lives. In between these scenes of horror, we witness the men talking about their lives, their fears, memories, and nightmares. There is even discussion of how the men have been able to compartmentalize their minds to allow for the justification of the murders.
It’s hard to know how the film was originally intended to be seen from the perspective of Congo and Zulkadry. If they were hoping to somehow look good through all this, they certainly weren't self-aware enough of how their murders would be viewed by the international community. After our experience with the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, it’s hard to believe and comprehend how we can exist in a world today that let’s such criminals as these killers not just live in freedom, but be celebrated. This film plays as a sort of real-life horror film, capturing a terrifying and nearly surreal sense of injustice and terror. Congo revels in showing his grandsons a moment that was filmed where he is being “interrogated at knife point”, as he proudly shows off to the next generation the work that he did. It almost makes you sick to your stomach. When Congo exhibits a bit of emotional remorse at the end of the film, as he retches off to the side of the camera, it sort of mimics the internal feeling I had the whole time watching the film. It literally makes you ill, watching the horror and injustice.
If any good can come of this film, maybe somehow the injustice on display will be overturned someday, but even I know this is mostly wishful thinking. Stories like this are hard to film, because one must infiltrate a society and a way of thinking to be able to film them. In all likelihood, there may be a silencing of this story within Indonesia. Oppenheimer’s real feat was finding the men in the first place and somehow building trust with them. Like I mentioned, there is a potential that Oppenheimer achieved his ends through sketchy means. It is reported that initially Congo was pleased with the final result, but is now potentially worried about the reception and publicity it may receive in his own country. It’s hard to believe that Congo would want his story to look like this, but it does just the same. If there is any justice in this world, there will be some kind of headway made in Indonesia and I'll continue to hope for justice despite my skepticism. Perhaps this film is just the beginning of the story on these mass murders.