On a windy and cold Saturday afternoon, what passes for Canberra’s socially engaged literati trudged into the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema. The attendees were duly warned in a ponderous sermon prior to the screening, “you should not laugh during this film.” A helpful reminder for those about to sit through a three-hour documentary about the mass murder of over 500,000 communists, ethnic Chinese, and other left-wing sympathizers by the Indonesian military and associated militia in 1965-66. The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, was the film in mention and has garnered a large amount of international press, with Werner Herzog’s claim that “It is unprecedented in the history of cinema” now a fixture of the film’s advertising.
The concept behind Killing is simple: let’s get the murderers to re-create their mass killings from their perspective and make those re-creations into a film. And lo, we are introduced to Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and his merry band of “gangsters”. These men are venerated by sections of the Indonesian media and enjoy close friendships with the political class. Between surreal dance numbers, film noir set pieces, and simple re-enactments the audience is allowed into the mind and actions of unrepentant mass murderers.
The terrifying mixture of pleasure and banality with which the killers describe their murders mixed with an affecting visual style makes this weird tale a harrowing experience. As a recreation and explanation of the mentality of those who carried out organized mass murder, Act of Killing stands alongside Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as a seminal text.
It’s disappointing then that Killing is in a serious need of a re-edit. Too many times it drifts where it should stick and allows the horror of Anwar and Herman’s brutality to dissipate. The narrative’s accumulation of terror should leave us breathless with shock. Too often Oppenheimer lingers on the connection between the capitalistic “gangsters” and Indonesia’s current economic prosperity, and the cinema’s responsibility in normalizing violence.
There are also a number of ethical issues with a film that attempts to re-create mass killing’s from the killer’s perspective. Foremost of which, should a film allow those murderers to redeem themselves? When the killers remain unpunished and, within Indonesia venerated, is a film a suitable stand in court? Anwar’s sudden change of opinion that his actions were ‘wrong’ is ultimately unconvincing, as are some highly constructed sequences that undermine the verite of the film.
It is unfortunate that Act of Killing is brought down by its weaknesses, but what could, and should, be required viewing never recovers from its ponderous navel-gazing.