It is easy to think of a world where there are clear villains and victims. Hitler or Pol Pot are not thought about as being human but rather the representation of the massive evil they propagated. That massive amount of evil required people who would do their bidding. So people donned the SS uniform or became contract killers for these people. What about them? Why did they decide to kill massive amounts of people because their leader said to? Can we write these people off as purely evil or do they have some redeeming characteristics to them? These questions can’t really ever be answered on a universal front but can be answered on a person to person basis. The Act of Killing follows around an ex contract killer for the Indonesian military. Through out the film these questions come up and up again in not only the mind of the filmmaker but also in the viewer.
Anwars Congo was an executioner for the Indonesian coup d’etat in the mid sixties. He personally killed about a thousand people all claiming to have communist ties of some sort or the other. Most of them were Chinese. Instead of paying for his crimes, he has become a sort of venerated figure in this military operated country. Basically Indonesia is like if Hitler won World War II. We first learn of Congo’s crimes when he is demonstrating how he killed so many people without so much blood on the roof of a building. He takes joy in recounting the ingenuity he cribbed from old gangster films. Instead of chopping their heads off, he would us piano wire and strangle them to death. He is relating this story at one moment and the next moment he is counting on how he used to get high and go dancing at clubs in order to get his mind off of it. He then demonstrates his great dancing moves. This scene I just describes encapsulates the whole film. These people are saying really crazy and morbid things one moment and the next they are horsing around and laughing. It seems to the viewer, at least at first, that Congo has no guilt over what he did in the past and how much destruction he reaped. As the film winds deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole that is Congo’s mind, we find out that he has just successfully suppressed these feelings and venerated what he did by calling himself a gangster. Gangster comes up again and again in the film. Not only does Congo call himself a gangster but the military leader makes speeches framed by that word and what it means not only to him but to the culture they are living in. By calling themselves this word, they are romanticizing their actions just the way those old gangster movies that Congo used to watch romanticized the carnage during the Prohibition.
This film is at once funny and devastating. The director really gets to the heart of the destruction reaped not only by Congo but by the country in general in a way that is unique. By getting these people to act out what they did and have creative control over their story, the director is getting them to think about their actions and find ways of dealing with it. By the end of the film, the director and Congo are back on top of that roof but this time it is a completely different scene. Congo is now fully aware of the carnage he committed and impact it had not only on himself but on the country as a whole. But instead of getting some kind of justice, I felt truly sorry for him and an overwhelming want to take away what happened to him and what he did. I understood why he did what he did. That is the true accomplishment of the film. And that is why I think this is one of my favorite films that I have seen this year.