Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” may be the most shocking documentary I’ve ever seen, in the way that it asks the viewer to confront evil head-on. For two hours, the film retains a near-singular focus on its subject, Anwar Congo, an unrepentant executioner of over 1,000 people in the Indonesian genocide of 1965-’66. Congo gleefully walks Oppenheimer through his killing method, using wire to strangle because the victim couldn’t fight back and there wouldn’t be much blood to clean up. He appears on a talk show in which he’s treated as a national hero—the oppressors have remained in power in Indonesia, four decades leader—laughing and having a good time, as if he were Bieber on Letterman. And, perhaps most shocking of all, at Oppenheimer’s invitation, Congo excitedly films cinematic reenactments of his killings with friend and fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry, using civilians as extras. They admit that their style of murdering was inspired by Hollywood—in fact, Congo and Zulkadry worked as black market sellers of movie theater tickets before they were professional killers—and their film is a reflection of this, a campy fusion of the gangster pic and the musical.
This is seriously disturbing stuff, and highly unique cinema in that most documentaries about atrocities examine the victims, not the perpetrators. And yet, Oppenheimer does his extraordinary material a disservice by barely examining the cultural context of Congo’s murders. There are only a few screens worth of introductory text and intermittent later references to the Indonesian political climate over the years, most concerning the Pancancila Youth paramilitary organization which Congo helped found. Can we truly understand the nature of the man’s crimes with only the most basic of background information about the movement that enabled them? I think not, as they didn’t happen in a vacuum (between 500,000 and 3 million people were killed, making Congo just one of thousands of executioners). Oppenheimer’s intentions in focusing so tightly on his main subject are admirable: he presumably sought to intimately focus on the psyche of a mass murderer, extracting broader truths in the process. But this strategy doesn’t quite pan out, as such focus occasionally has a tendency to isolate Congo from his commanders, in turn making his perverse reflections on murder seem similar to those of a conventional psychopathic serial killer, a colossal (albeit clearly inadvertent) misrepresentation.
Luckily, this sporadic misrepresentation doesn’t ruin “The Act of Killing,” as there are enough reminders (if, unfortunately, not detailed dissections) of larger Indonesia, such as the civilian extras in the film-within-a-film, to keep Congo’s position in the government hierarchy clear. Furthermore, in spite of the contextual problems it creates, Oppenheimer’s focus on Congo’s psyche does culminate in quite the finale, when the man arguably perceives the pain his crimes caused for the first time. That’s not to say he repents, though, making his presence all the more confounding, chilling in the closing frames. It’s frustrating to consider the movie that “The Act of Killing” could have been, had Oppenheimer’s approach been more encompassing, but this shouldn’t temper our enthusiasm for the many remarkable elements in the movie that is.