When the credits roll at the end of The Act of Killing, roughly a third of the crew is listed as “Anonymous.” These are presumably Indonesians who have gone nameless for fear of retribution by a government, new to democracy, which perceives their participation in the film as an act of defiance. For the same reason, virtually no one who is not closely aligned with the government is interviewed in the film. The voice of the people being stifled in this story is problematic, to be sure, but less problematic than usual, when the men in power would reliably lie through their teeth about presiding over an equitable society. Instead, Indonesia’s ruling class wears its corruption on its sleeve. Central to its ascent to power in the mid-1960s was the murder of an estimated 500,000 to 2,000,000 “communists” (many of whom were merely alleged or suspected communists). Subsidized by the military, this genocide was largely carried out by civilians, and the stars of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, were two of the death squad leaders, each personally responsible for as many as 1,000 deaths. These men have never been punished, and they speak of their misdeeds openly and often pridefully.
With the stage already set for a fascinating and disturbing story, The Act of Killing takes it a step further into surreal territory, choosing to examine its characters by offering to help them create cinematic dramatizations of their atrocities. Congo and Koto, who cut their teeth as gangsters selling black market movie tickets, enthusiastically remake their memories in the image of their favorite noir and musical pictures. The results are predictably bizarre but still profoundly unsettling, revealing a spectrum of attitudes about their actions that range from indifference to ambivalence.
Those attitudes are colored by the different personalities at play, aspects of which fit their egregious behavior: Herman Koto is an oafish bully seen routinely extorting his neighbors and making an inept attempt at running for public office; Adi Zulkadry, another former executioner, is a politically eloquent sociopath who dismisses the Geneva Conventions as flavor-of-the-week morality (and, frankly, makes some fair claims about the United States’ culpability in its own war crimes). But The Act of Killing makes something of a centerpiece of Anwar Congo, who, unlike his colleagues, is clearly haunted by his experiences, perhaps owing to their seeming incompatibility with his affable personality. The film makes no apologies for Congo, but as he reluctantly approaches empathizing with his victims, and with the Cold War not so distant a memory, we are forced to confront what terrible things we might be capable of under the right horrendous circumstances.