Culture: Film

Beige Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

What does a serial killer look like? Or a torturer? In the Act of Killing, just peer into the eyes of Anwar Congo, a man responsible for the mass murder and execution of over 1000 people.

Congo looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He is still a sprightly 70-something, with smooth skin and a beatific smile. In fact, he could pass for an Indonesian Nelson Mandela, with his fuzzy white hair and taste in gaudily coloured shirts.

It’s a surreal film on many levels. First, you have psychopaths talking very calmly of their terrible deeds, and then you have the cinematic illusion, with cuts to dancing girls against a backdrop of the Sumatran jungle.

The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, which he describes as a documentary of the imagination, offers an extraordinary look into the minds and lives of men who have raped, tortured and executed – but have no remorse or feelings of guilt.

In 1965, the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military. Congo and his cronies were small-time gangsters who were also movie theatre ticket touts, before moving on to much more sinister work.

They became the paid assassins for the Indonesian military dictatorship, helping to kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in under a year. 

The smiling Congo, casually talks about the best ways of killing while adjusting his dentures. He came up with a method of garroting with wire, which he said was better as stabbing them to death caused too much blood and was more difficult to clear up.

Congo is calm, confident and relaxed. He speaks casually of how he dealt with the pressures of being a notorious executioner for a death squad. Drinking, making jokes, smoking a little marijuana and dancing all helped.

The latter was the most potent form of relaxation, and Congo goes on to demonstrate a few steps of the cha cha, rhythmically swaying his hips and arms to a melody in his mind, which played over 40 years ago.

Just when your senses are attempting to take in the contradictions of this apparently gentle man, Congo looks straight to camera and says chillingly, “I never wore white trousers. I always wore dark clothes.” Presumably, the blood doesn’t show up as much, and is easier to wash out.

Oppenheimer manages to get into the minds of these men by asking them to dramatise their worst deeds by performing and recreating them in any film genre they liked.

The gangster movie was obviously chosen, as was most bizarrely, “the beautiful family movie”, as Congo puts it. Quite how the rape of 14-year-old girls fits into this was one that thankfully didn’t come to movie fruition.

About half way through the film, I was beginning to feel uneasy, wondering whether Oppenheimer was letting Congo and the other killers off the hook by not asking them why they didn’t have remorse or could joke about cutting someone’s head off.

But as they re-enact nightmarish scenes of savagery, Congo begins to unravel.

Congo, who plays the role of the victim, killed and garroted, says off-camera to Oppenheimer that he can really understand what his victims are feeling.

But the director interjects by saying “No, you don’t. Your victims felt worse because they knew they were going to die. This is just a film.”

And Congo is now plagued by insomnia. Nightmares about the eyes of a dead man come to haunt him. At last, he begins to feel the enormity of his terrible crimes and the suffering he has caused.

The last scene is of Congo sitting on a rooftop where he ended so many lives. He starts to retch, one hopes disgusted and revolted by what he has done. The sound of his gargling, gasping and gagging fills the cinema – it seems to last for hours – and reverberates in the mind for a long time.

The Act of Killing is a truly astounding, shocking and thought-provoking film. If you are bored of Hollywood rom coms and jaded by the latest superhero flick, check out this film to see a truly original piece of filmmaking that grabs you by the guts.

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Words: Fiona Keating

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