It would be easy to write Anwar Congo off as a brutal, merciless, and corrupt mass murderer and relegate him to the corner of history reserved for pure evil. After all, Congo is a notorious Indonesian death squad leader who orchestrated the murder of over a million Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in the 1960s, admittedly killing hundreds with his own hands. Today he remains a revered role model in Indonesia, and rather than being stigmatized for his mass killings, he is celebrated as the leader of a modern paramilitary organization — even on daytime television. But filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer does not take the easy way out, and by doing so, he has made Congo something else entirely: a movie star. And in the process, he has also made him human.
The Act of Killing sets out to chronicle the history of mass murders in 1960s Indonesia. But rather than do so in typical talk-to-the camera documentary fashion, Oppenheimer capitalizes on the obsession with gangsters, old Westerns and onscreen sadism that Congo and his crew of paramilitaries make very apparent. The director agrees to indulge their Hollywood fantasy and make a film about their “triumphant” history in any genre they choose. What results is both absurd and utterly terrifying. The film is a compelling document about what happens when people commit atrocities without impunity. Like the double entendre in its title, The Act of Killing toggles between between pretend and reality, and by the end, the line is unsettlingly blurred.
To better understand the film, first, a quick acting lesson: Anyone who has taken a beginning theater class is familiar with the “private in public” exercise. Actors are instructed to do something simple they often do alone — paint their nails, make a sandwich — onstage in front of an audience in order to confront the paradox of behaving intimately in front of a roomful of people. Often, actors are so self-conscious about seeming natural that their simple task appears stilted.
In Killing, the opposite occurs: by trying to act for the public, we get startlingly real emotion. Congo and his cronies approach their roles with the bravado and swagger of the stereotypical rowdy cowboys and fedora-wearing smooth criminals they play. Yes, the genre-crossing musical numbers incorporating the ghosts of dead communists, dancers in garish pink costumes, Congo’s portly sidekick dressed in drag, a technicolor pastoral backdrop and a giant bass that Congo has dreamed up are Kafkaesque in their ridiculousness. But let us not forget that Oppenheimer is filming a pseudo-movie celebrating the murder of millions within a documentary condemning these killings. The meta quality to this makes it highly effective - more so than if had he simply portrayed Congo’s brutality.
Tall, sinewy, and a study in coolness, Congo comes across as a qualified leading-man stand-in. And then, throughout the process of becoming a movie star, something changes: the man mugging for the cameras, describing how he’s more brutal than any character Pacino or Brando ever played and cavalierly demonstrating how actors should pretend to murder by wrapping a wire around the neck of a Communist, is slammed with unexpected emotion in the middle of a take. Instead of channelling pride for the killings he is acting out — the killings he committed in real life — he is confronted with something close to remorse. Another bit of acting advice: on-camera emotion is most authentic when suppressing it.
And here begins the film within the film that neither Congo or Oppenheimer likely expected: there is the Congo who wanted to take the reins of his own story and sees it as a blockbuster in the making, who talks with pride about being a gangster and how one should never wear white pants to a murder. That’s the man he wants to star in the film. But the Congo who shines — and here the credit is to due to Oppenheimer — is the Congo plagued by insomnia and haunted by nightmares from his past.
Oppenheimer expertly captures this duality by training his camera on the viewer. In fact, we are always watching others watching. We are watching Anwar Congo’s face in the rearview mirror as he looks at himself, a reflection, a free-floating face, an image of someone obsessed with his image. We are watching his crony watch Obama on T.V. as he imitates the president in the mirror. We are watching Congo with this grandsons as he forces them to watch the scene (that we’ve just watched as it was filmed) where he gets “killed” with a wire wrapped around his neck, in the same manner he killed hundreds. Oppenheimer orchestrates many stunning “big Hollywood” scenes (Indonesian-style), but it is the quiet notes in which we are just watching others watch, that, like crisp triangle dings after a big band’s brassy finish, are most powerful.
This vigilance is what makes the line between what is real and what is an “act” so hazy. There are moments when it’s clear that Congo and his paramilitary crew are acting, but because we know he’s done what he’s doing for the cameras in real life, viewers may feel the same tension were they about to watch a live execution. In a film landscape dominated by million-dollar explosions, well-choreographed torture scenes and cartoonish ultra-violence, Congo and his cronies holding a piece of wire and explaining why it’s a better way to strangle than rope (so that the victim can’t hold on) — comes off as very real, and supremely chilling.
This is perhaps The Act of Killing’s most impressive achievement: Oppenheimer manages to treat Congo with compassion while at the same time giving an unsettling portrayal of life in a place where the bad guys win. Therein, of course lies the irony: confronting his demons onscreen was Congo’s own doing. His obsession with films where it was clear who the good guys and bad guys were ultimately forced him into a place of moral ambiguity. Only by pretending that history was so clear cut, does he come to terms with the fact that his own past is not. And while many viewers will respond with outrage that Congo hasn’t been brought to the Hague and tried for war crimes, they might also feel a discomforting compassion for the killer. Good work never tells us what to feel, and and even the character of a mass murderer is not black and white.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.alizahsalario.com or follow her on Twitter @alirosa.