"The Act of Killing"...the title itself straight away makes you aware that the movie you're about to see isn't for the faint-hearted...
A highly graphic film, "The Act of Killing" is a 2012 documentary that is told first-hand by the killers themselves. It is a true-to-form story about the mass genocide of "communists" and Chinese Indonesians, performed by the Indonesian Paramilitary, Pancasila Youth Group and gangsters in Jakarta.
Watching the actual criminals retell and act out their stories with clear enthusiasm of the bloody scenes they created in 1965, really demonstrated how far they would go to force their laws and the "free man" aka "gangster" ways of life on the people who opposed their beliefs by creating chaos and devastation in their lives.
The re-enacted section of the movie is obviously that of low-budget filming, but it doesn't make it any less horrible to watch. In fact, it comes across as more graphic because the proud militants are re-living how they interrogated, tortured and gruesomely murdered 2 million or more people. The Pancasila Youth Group (a paramilitary organisation, created by General Abdul Haris Nasutin*) is a very real and fearsome mob that allegedly ran death squads and supported the killing of 2 million or more accused communists and Chinese Indonesians. This rebel force still exists today and ranges from 4 to 10 million members strong.
The main narrator- Anwar Congo, was a very well-known and feared gangster who, as an individual allegedly murdered up to 1000 people in the most brutal ways he possibly could, claiming that his inspiration for his murder and torture methods were gained from American gangster films. He says that he always wore clothes that imitated the likes of well-known film stars such as Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. He also describes how he and his group of fellow gangsters always had the upper hand, whether it being whistling at girls in the street or standing over vulnerable civilians for their money, and punishing them if they could not pay up. He said he felt powerful, in control and feared.
He then lead the film crew to his infamous location where he would commit the brutal killings, either torturing them first or simply straight up executing them in the most inhumane fashion he could. Then displaying no remorse but somewhat pride almost, he demonstrated how he ended their life by tightly wrapping wire around the victim's neck, causing strangulation then disposing of the body in sacks so as to avoid attention or being seen. Not that anyone would've spoken up if they had seen something happening- the price of snitching no doubt would've been their life.
As the horrific stories are brought back to life by real and current Pancasila members and general civilians acting as communist victims, you can begin to see a slight change in Anwar. Although he still stands strong for his political passion and beliefs, his character also shows that overtime he has been affected by his past, as the scenes depicting the pain and terror in innocent people were again, happening in front of him, however this time by actors. Anwar later mentioned that he suffers nightmares to this day because of one particular murder he unfortunately has to take credit for. He could only say that after he performed the brutal act, he wished that he had closed his victim's eyes before he died because his dreams are now haunted by the man, staring through Anwar and haunting him with a revengeful laugh.
As the documentary progressed on, one scene being shot involved some real Indonesian pancasilas re-enacting the start of a village rampage. This will really give you goosebumps because you know they're not actors, but are genuine killers and rebel soldiers who are simply repeating what they did in 1965. Their group leader however, wasn't impressed with the scene because he was concerned that it may give the Pancasila Youth a bad image, as though they were blood-thirsty murderers (although he subtly pointed out they did have a duty). They loudly chanted fearsome mottos and screamed their promises of pain they would cause. The leader opted to tone the scene down a bit for the documentary but wanted to keep the hardcore footage to show their people that they meant business in real life. The ironic thing is, not 5 minutes prior to this scene, there were some militants snickering about having a "heavenly time" when they captured and raped a 14 year old girl during the real mass murders half a century ago. This didn't give them a bad image at all...
I have to say that I was quite affected with the way the gangsters talked about women and 'low class citizens' in such derogatory terms and how 'communists were a waste of space'. It almost sounded like the WWII Holocaust happening all over again. Their taunts and disgustingly inappropriate conversation fell on deaf ears with the women, who, if they were to stand up for themselves, would've paid the price with their livelihood.
The children who were required for the riot scene were genuinely crying- and couldn't cease the tears even after the scene was finished. The fact that they were being exploited and being put through such a life-like ordeal just for a documentary film didn't seem all that ethical, but then again, it managed to capture the essence of the terror, fear and pain that the true victims would've experienced. It also made Anwar perceive the life-like scene at another view, suddenly making him realise that stealing the lives of the innocent women, children and their families was "not right", even though he had to.
After their re-make documentary was edited and put together, Anwar was watching the final product at home and you could see a slight emotional stirring inside him. By the time his scene had ended (he acted as a victim being interrogated and eventually strangled), Anwar could barely watch and admitted that he could, while acting, feel the pain and fear that his victims would've felt, although the producer mentioned that he knew he was on film whereas his victims knew they were about to die. Anwar said this is true but he somehow felt a true terror inside. While he was being filmed in that chair and tormented by his fellow group members, he seemed to truly use that scenario to place himself in the past victim's shoes and became incredibly humbled, thus not being able to cope for another minute as acting the victim, due to being overwhelmed with angry emotions and trauma from his own wrongdoings.
As the film reaches its close, Anwar took himself one last time to the rooftop where he had once played God and, using relentless force took the lives of countless victims and disposed of them carelessly in bags. As he spoke, he was overcome with physical sickness and began violently heaving and gagging. It was quite an intense moment, how, when silently reflecting a moment before, Anwar was sick to his stomach when he suddenly came to the realization of what he had done and how it would take more than a lifetime to ever be forgiven. I think that moment of awareness comes about of what one has done can be the first step to healing and finding some form of peace to be able to get on each day, after committing such unforgivable acts to another human being, let alone possibly 1000.
I think, along with the audience, Anwar Congo felt a conviction in his soul after viewing the gangsters replaying the killings as a spectator this time, and even experiencing a victim's point of view. It's an amazing thing that no matter how cruel and sadistic someone can prove to be, they still can envelope a tiny fragment of heart somewhere inside that shakes their core and causes them to reflect on what they did. Anwar knows that although it was deemed his "duty" to perform these horrifying acts, he is graciously aware that it wasn't right. Nothing will ever be able to excuse what he did but digging into the memory his dark past literally made him sick to his stomach proved that he is somewhat capable of real human emotion and sympathy.
This documentary is raw, it is detailed and can be disturbing to experience at times because as you watch each tale unfold, you are constantly aware that those men are not actors playing characters or wearing costumes, but they are in fact unpunished criminals happily exploiting their unspeakable actions 50 years ago.
My heart goes out to the victims and the families affected by the horrific history. I hope the movie and my review makes people more aware of this brutality that sadly is happening around the world today and one day people may truly experience that beautiful word- Peace.
After the film was released, Anwar Congo left his home in Indonesia and has never been able to return.