Documentary filmmaker James Oppenheimer has made one of the best documentaries of all time with his new film that investigates the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966. The deaths may near a million, making it one of the least publicized genocides in the history of civilization. But instead of making the conventional info-download doc, Oppenheimer dared to do something different. He asked some of the most prominent death squad members of that time to be interviewed, and to create some of their killings in their favorite movie genres: western, musical, noir, and others. They happily agreed. Happily? Yes. They suffer no trauma, no apparent regret, and if any demons chase them in the night, they are seemingly few. They brag, and celebrate themselves freely and with considerable ego. Worse than unapologetic, these ‘movie gangsters’, a title given in reference to their former occupation as movie ticket sellers, are proud.
For context, look back at four of the most famous killers in the West. There’s Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 20 men, John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33, and Ted Bundy, who has killed as many as 100 people. They were famous not just because they were serial killers, but as a consequence of the startling amount death each man had dealt out. They are psychopaths. Serial killers are of such interest to the West that an entire sub-culture of capitalist prosperity arose profiting off the notoriety around these men. Murderabilia it’s called, and it’s raised troubling questions to moral psychologists for years. They contend that while cultural fascination with serial killers may seem threatening on the surface, the implications are much less sinister. There’s too many to type out here, but, there’s one in particular crucial to understanding the power Oppenheimer discovered in his interviewing process. To whatever degree we let morbid curiosity get the better of us, we have an answer—they’re psychopaths. They aren’t like us. We can write them off. We can’t possibly see much, if any, of ourselves in men so emotionally alienated from ourselves.
The Act of Killing eliminates this means of escape. The film’s main subject, and there are a few, is Anwar Congo, one of the most famous executers in North Sumatra. In fact, not only has he become a prominent right-wing party member, but he’s interviewed on a talk-show that asks him questions about his murders the way Tom Cruise might be asked about rock climbing. And unlike John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy, he is not a psychopath. At face value, he and his friends are reasonable guys. They love movies, love to dance, and love beer. They are like us, at least insofar as that the way they behave is not unlike your average fella. It makes it all the more difficult to find an excuse, a wish-away get out of jail free card about what a regular human being is and isn’t capable of doing. So when we’re told Anwar’s executions, which are usually done by beheading with a wire, number over a thousand, our reaction can only be fear. Not fear in Anwar necessarily, but fear in ourselves. This is Oppenheimer’s ‘in’ to the main theme of the film. It isn’t a study of the killer or the psychology of the killer, it’s the ease with which we hide from ourselves. This is the crux of the film’s ultimate point: there’s an invading moral passivity that is washing away society like a hurricane.
If The Act of KIlling is a trial, we were found guilty. We act badly, cope by comfortably tucking away our misdeeds into the caverns of the subconscious, and we continue. John Doe, the serial killer mastermind played expertly by Kevin Spacey in David Fincher’s breakthrough feature Se7en, comes to mind with this quote: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it.” The moral decay of society has been a popular theme of post-modern fiction for a hundred years, but few texts dare to implicate just about everyone as a self-damning instrument of a worldwide machine. Everything in the documentary pursues these topics, and it’s a stroke of genius in how Oppenheimer chose to do it. By having killings reenacted in the favorite movie genres of Anwar and his friends, it lets Oppenheimer ask leading questions without revealing his intentions. Not that it likely would have mattered, he noted in an interview Anwar could hardly comprehend anyone would have a problem with what he did. So when Anwar speaks nonchalantly about the slaughter in his past and it’s cross-cut with clips from the recreations from his movies, the combination forms a shocking surrealism unlike any I’ve experienced in a movie. That isn’t hyperbole. Like any great documentary filmmaker, Oppenheimer transformed docu-journalism into high-art. More should, and, after this, more will.