Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by acclaimed documentary producers Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War), The Act of Killing is as confronting and stomach churning as you would expect from this heavy weight trio.
The documentary follows former members of Indonesian death squads headed up by Anwar Congo, founding father of the pro-regime paramilitary group, Pancasila Youth. The group, along with its band of dedicated followers, participated in the murder of over one million alleged Communists during the 1960s in northern Sumatra. To this day, they remain unpunished for their crimes and instead have been elevated to the status of national heroes.
Oppenheimer has somehow convinced Anwar and his followers to re-enact a series of murders in the style of their favourite American movies, including western, gangster and even a musical. They initially jump at the chance, laughing and joking as they act out the horrendous scenes with little thought for the reality behind them. Anwar and closest friend, Herman Koto, play the perfect comedy duo, both as ridiculous as each other and almost likeable, until you are reminded, with gut-wrenching reality, of who they really are and what they have done.
The levels of corruption, violence and brainwashing within the Pancasila Group and its followers, whose members still consist of numerous senior government officials and journalists, is beyond frightening and gives a chilling insight into the workings of the Indonesian government. The leaders’ reiteration that they are not gangsters, but purely ‘free men’ (their interpretation of the word) acting out what was best for the country, shows the level of propaganda that has gone on for decades and that still holds influence today.
The only glimpse of hope in this film is at the end when finally, after many hours of shooting and following a scene where he plays one of his victims, Anwar appears to feel a sense of remorse. But is it too little to late? We can only hope that the true story of what happened will now begin to surface and that the victims of the massacres can gain some closure.
The Act of Killing is playing for a limited season nationally from Thursday 3 October.
The review was written by Helen Lear