In the fall of 1965, following a failed coup d’état, the Indonesian military began a campaign of killings ostensibly targeted at the country’s Communist Party. Over the next few months, at least half a million people were killed by death squads. Unlike other modern genocides, the Indonesian killings were committed mostly one by one; individuals were strangled or beheaded, had their throats cut, or were simply beaten to death.
The killings resulted in a military takeover of the government that would last for the next 30 years and still plays a major role in Indonesian politics. The perpetrators of the killings have never been charged with any crimes; some of them are now minor celebrities, appearing on talk shows and at rallies to boast about their involvement in the genocide.
This is the starting point of Joshua Oppenheimer’s stomach churner, The Act Of Killing. More a moral work than a political one, the documentary uses one death-squad leader—the dapper ex-gangster Anwar Congo, who personally killed a thousand people, most of them strangled with piano wire—to explore an even bigger subject: evil.
Oppenheimer makes Congo a simple offer: He will direct a movie about the actions of Congo and his friends during the mid-’60s, casting them in lead roles and giving them final say on everything. Always eager to talk about the killings, Congo accepts. A crew is hired, sets are built, extras are marshaled, and gory makeup is applied.
On the one hand, The Act Of Killing offers a peek into the mind of a person who has done unspeakably evil things and has never been socially compelled to feel any remorse about it. The film-within-a-film is, unsurprisingly, nonsensical; Congo wants Oppenheimer to portray his methods with maximum accuracy because he believes that it will make him look cool and heroic, but he also insists on adding musical numbers and bits of broad slapstick. The disconnect between the perpetrators and their tastes makes The Act Of Killing the funniest documentary ever made about genocide—a dubious honor if there ever was one; the squirmiest shock comedy pales in comparison to the sight of a real mass murderer starring in a fantasy sequence where the ghosts of his victims present him with a medal.
But at the same time, The Act Of Killing never loses sight of its core subject. As Congo becomes more and more comfortable around him, Oppenheimer begins dropping in questions about guilt and accountability; whether Congo feels remorse becomes the central mystery of the film. By tackling one man’s sense of right and wrong (or lack thereof), Oppenheimer is ultimately tackling human nature.