A documentary about the 1965 massacre by the Indonesian military of its opponents by American Josh Oppenheimer is a fascinating take on reportageby Tom Streithorst / July 29, 2013 / Leave a comment
In 1965, the Indonesian military ousted Sukarno, the revolutionary leader who had ruled the country since independence. In order to consolidate their power, they massacred their opponents. Over half a million communist sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were murdered in the six months from October 1965 to March 1966.
Forty years later Josh Oppenheimer, an American graduate of Harvard’s filmmaking programme, flew to Sumatra, an epicentre of the slaughter, in order to make a documentary about the killings. He began by trying to find victims, but still afraid, few would talk to him. One of them suggested that he instead interview the perpetrators. Rich and successful, they were not ashamed of their crimes and would be more willing to talk than the survivors.
After interviewing dozens of “premen”, local gangsters who had been deputised by the military to actually carry out the slaughter, Oppenheimer met Anwar Congo and realised he had found his star. When we first meet him, Congo seems a genial and dapper old man but in his youth, he led a gang that killed thousands.
Before the slaughter, Congo had been a scalper outside a movie theatre in Medan, the capital of Northern Sumatra. A big fan of Hollywood movies, one of the reasons he despised the communists is they tried to limit the number of American movies shown in Indonesia and this cost him money. In order to explore his memories of the massacres, Oppenheimer encourages Congo to recreate and film the killings in the style of the Hollywood films he loved.
The Act of Killing, filmed over six years from 2005 to 2011, is, in a way, the “behind the scenes” film of Anwar Congo’s kitsch version of the massacres. In Anwar Congo, Oppenheimer cast the perfect protagonist. Self-confident, brash, funny but inwardly still tortured by his crimes, Congo films himself singing “Born Free” surrounded by dancing girls, portrays himself as a victim being tortured while wearing bad horror movie make-up, and teaches us how best to garrotte a man, a method of murder he recommends as it doesn’t produce much blood.
This film is surreal. It opens with a stream of chorus girls exiting the mouth of a rusting statue of a large fish. We watch Herman Koto, Congo’s fat and thick sidekick wear…