When people commit mass murder, they get locked up. Or maybe they evade prosecution, in which case they keep a low profile for the rest of their lives. When reporters come around with cameras and ask them about the massacre, they say, "I wasn't there" or "No comment."
Not always. In the documentary The Act of Killing, we enter a place where mass murderers are still wealthy, respected, supported by the ruling regime. They don't just confess to their crimes. They boast of them. With help from a film crew, they re-enact incidents of torture and murder using costumes, fake blood, music and cheesy Hollywood clichés.
It may be the most surreal and disturbing thing you've ever seen on screen. It's certainly the most powerful movie I've seen this year.
The packed screening of The Act of Killing last night at the Vermont International Film Festival was tense and quiet except for the occasional ripple of laughter. (Yes, it's sometimes funny.) Afterward, many of us stayed for a Skype conversation with producer Signe Byrge Sørensen, a Danish woman in Japan who patiently answered our questions in English.
Here's some backstory:
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer was interviewing plantation workers in Indonesia when he started hearing stories of the 1965 massacre of communists and ethnic Chinese. "I found that every time we filmed [the workers] talking about what they were afraid of, we would get stopped by the military, arrested, and have stuff taken," he told the A.V. Club.
Meanwhile, the survivors I was filming — and I didn’t go there knowing they were survivors — would ask if I would go and film neighbors of theirs who they knew had been perpetrators, and thought might have information on how their loved ones had died. For example: “Could you go and find out if my mother was killed? She disappeared 40 years ago, but we never knew what happened.” I would go on these terrible missions on behalf of the survivors, and find out that not only could I get information on how people died, but I could find out in general how the killings had happened ... The perpetrators were boastful. I didn’t have to lure them to open up. ... It dawned on me that I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, and found the Nazis still in power.
Over several years, Oppenheimer "worked [his] way up the chain of command" until he met Anwar Congo (pictured right), the film's central figure and star of the re-enactments.
Congo is not a one-dimensional monster. He speaks of having nightmares, being haunted by ghosts. He plays tenderly with his grandchildren. In the re-enactments, he wants to act the part of victim as well as perpetrator. But a "remorseful" man wouldn't participate in these garish, glorifying performances.
Some have accused Oppenheimer of glorifying the killing, too. It's worth arguing about, but I thought just the opposite. Sure, the film "humanizes" the killers. And makes you confront just how deeply twisted, fucked up and perniciously self-justifying humanity can be. (No wonder Werner Herzog exec-produced.)
Throughout the film, the killers and current Indonesian paramilitary members field accusations of being "gangsters" by pointing out that "gangster means free man." Freedom is good, right?
I couldn't help being reminded of Walter White's "Live Free or Die" license plate. Yeah, freedom is good. Being a "bad-ass" without social restrictions (Congo says he was inspired by Hollywood gangsters) makes you feel alive.
Our action movies tend to glorify that attitude, keeping the hero's hands clean and the corpses on the margins. But freedom can become nihilism. The Act of Killing shows how people use comic-book-vigilante rhetoric to justify their atrocities. "'War crimes' are defined by the winners," one of Congo's friends declares. As far as he's concerned, the persistence of violence in human life since Cain and Abel gives him plenty of justification.
VTIFF has one more screening on Thursday, October 17, at 1 p.m. at the ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center (info here). The movie is scheduled for video release early in January.