The Best Film Of 2013: The Act Of Killing
Here it is. Having listed the rest of my top 10 films of 2013, here is the film that beat everything else this year. As I wrote for Total Film, “getting killers to act out their crimes sounds like a gimmick, but becomes instead a profound use of form to challenge function. Sickening, illuminating and vital documentary making.”
The Act Of Killing
(Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
In 2000, I visited the Indonesian island of Sumatra, travelling alone and – as I soon discovered – against the flow of the few other tourists who ventured off the well-worn backpackers’ trail. It remains one of the few places I’ve been where I didn’t feel entirely safe or welcome. At the time, I put it down to economic and religious unrest; Indonesia had been badly damaged when the ‘Tiger Economy’ collapsed during the late 1990s, and a month after I left the country was rocked by a spate of church bombings.
Now I’m not so sure. For The Act Of Killing makes it clear that the area I visited – notably the main metropolis of Northern Sumatra, Medan – was already home to dozens of unrepentant thugs and killers, who butchered thousands of Communists (or anybody who simply disagreed with them) during the military coup of 1965. Bad enough that they were never arrested or convicted for these crimes; worse, they remain in positions of influence, friendly with politicians and indoctrinating future generations via media outlets and vile paramilitary organisations that openly celebrate their gangsterism.
This would be strong material for any documentary, but when director Joshua Oppenheimer attempted to tell a conventional exposé of this sickening state of affairs he was thwarted by a wall of silence. Sumatra is still so gripped by the same ideology of fear that thrived during the 1960s that Oppenheimer was banned from documenting the survivors’ testimony. Instead, he was pointed in the direction of the perpetrators, all of whom – horrifying – were only too glad to recount their past.
The result is a rare opportunity to go beyond the usual limits of such activist filmmaking. The creative path Oppenheimer takes feels at first glance like a gimmick, but proves to be the most apt way of exploring a world where morality has been untethered for so long. His gambit is to collude with the killers on ‘their’ documentary, letting them decide on how to re-enact their crimes. It’s an obscene idea – but the point is that hardly anybody baulks at doing so.
OK, so one death squad leader wonders aloud what the point is in talking about the past but, revealingly, he does so on camera. Later, when a government minister puts in a cameo appearance playing a gang leader, he backtracks immediately afterwards, asking the extras to tone down their bloodlust in case anybody gets the wrong idea – but it never occurred to him in the first place that this might be the case.
Yet at the film’s centre is a man for whom “the wrong idea” doesn’t exist. Anwar Congo was a self-styled movie star of the revolution, a guy who walked straight from a screening of an Elvis Presley movie into an interrogation. He based his torture techniques on the movies he saw… so, with counter-intuitive intelligence, Oppenheimer calls him on it by asking Congo to become the ‘star’ of his own story.
The results are startling because they reveal the rough edges that most dictators are media-trained to avoid. A conventional approach would leave the protagonists on their guard, but Oppenheimer’s cheerful agreement to dress Congo and chums as gangsters, or stage lavish, surreal dance numbers beside a statue of a giant fish, dupe the war criminals into thinking they’ll become the stars they always wanted to be.
It goes without saying that this guileless bunch haven’t the wit to know they’re being stitched up but, given the garish kitsch that passes for cinema in their eyes, reality clearly took a hike years ago. One of the torturers even proudly displays one of those fish that sings ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ sentiments that couldn’t be further from the reality of his trade if he tried. Meanwhile, Congo puts on dentures and dyes his hair; more enigmatic is his second-in-command, Herman Koto, who eagerly takes on the roles of rape victims so he can unleash his inner diva by dragging up. And yet Congo is at pains to tell Oppenheimer that he wants to re-enact things properly; it is the authenticity of a madman.
This is documentary gold because the mantra throughout is ‘too much information’. These guys are so used to being applauded for old-school talk of exterminating Communists that their filters are eroded. A media mogul willingly tells us that he’d make up crimes of the suspects he handed to Congo, claiming “my job was to make the public hate them” – if only the Daily Mail would be so garrulous. When a journalist feigns not to have realised Communists were being slaughtered in his building, the killers tut and roll their eyes – either he’s stupid, or a coward, not to join in the back-slapping. Most terrifying of all is a TV show where a young presenter gushes over the forthcoming film (or, at least, Congo’s conception of it) for reminding everyone who he once exterminated the Communists, while the studio audience – all paramilitaries – lap it up. This is the kind of behaviour you expect from North Korea or Iran but this is Indonesia. It’s a sobering wake-up call to just how fragile and laughable democracy is.
The greatest value of The Act Of Killing lies in how Oppenheimer exposes the process by which imagery is constructed and meanings derived therefrom: it’s a forensic document of State propaganda. Earlier in the film, the least contrite of the killers points out that he’s the winner in this story, so he should decide what is a crime and what isn’t. [Later, Koto runs for parliament, admitting he’s got his eye on a gig in the building commission so he can extort developers for bribes; he doesn’t win, but it’s a worrying indication of how power and corruption have become conflated.] These are the attitude that prevented Oppenheimer telling the survivors’ stories, but in the absence of victims, victims must be engineered.
At one point, the relative of a real-life victim takes the same role in the film, but when he volunteers ideas to improve the authenticity he is fobbed off; his vision doesn’t suit the killers’ agenda. Elsewhere, children are cajoled into playing the helpless offspring of Communist victims; inevitably, they are reduced to tears, to the obvious delight of Congo and his chums. While there is an obvious pun in the film’s title, the way that events strip away the ‘Act’ to reveal the bitter, unchanged truth, is sobering and deeply worrying.
Yet Oppenheimer’s masterstroke is to persuade Congo to play the part of a victim, too. The latter’s obvious discomfort for wearing the boot on the other foot is nothing next to his reaction when he sees the footage. It is a startling coup, a moment that reveals a universal truth through an imagined reality. If the performance can be guided and changed, then perhaps the actor can be too? That is a question that only Indonesians can answer, but right now most of its people don’t even have a stage on which to share their viewpoint. The film’s final, crushing blow comes as the credits scroll, as we realise that half of the crew is listed as ‘anonymous,’ still too afraid and in peril to become known.
Tagged 2013 films