The Pitch: Members of an Indonesian Death Squad are asked to reenact some of their past murders and through it are faced with the tough question, Is Killing in the name of the winning side still murder?
During an investigation of that time in Indonesia’s history Joshua Oppenheimer and his crew found themselves in talks with the actual heads of the Squad and invite them to reenact some of the scenes from their more memorable murders in the style of any movie trope they choose; Western, Gangster, and so on. What comes out of the proceedings is nothing short of remarkable.
In 1965-66 a group of men form a so-called Death Squad to remove the Communists from Indonesia. Using any means necessary these once petty gangsters tortured and kill any persons who may have remotely been a Communist. Numbers vary on how many supposed communist were killed at that time but estimates fall around the One Million Mark. These men of the North Sumatra Death Squad went on to become high ranking dignitaries and generally celebrated as saviours of the area.
When Adi Zulkadry, one of the Executioners, is asked whether he he feels uncomfortable that the Geneva Convention defines what he did as War Crimes, he answers with unwavering certainty, “War Crimes are defined by the winners. I am a winner. So I make my own definition.” And that is what The Act of Killing is about. Not whether what they did was right or wrong by the code of the Western World but whether someone can take so many lives and live with it. For them to go on with their own lives and kiss their wives and Grandchildren before they go to bed and have a coffee at the local restaurant and play Golf without it niggling at them somewhere.
These are men who are haunted by their actions. By duty that an uprising regime entrusted them to do but make no mistake they are troubled by them. Upon first viewing one might suspect this movie is exactly what the subjects convince themselves the documentary is about; to celebrate what they did to help Indonesia but sometimes it is not what someone says that reveals their character but what they won’t say.
Much like US soldiers in Vietnam this squad of executioners were doing the job they were entrusted to do. They have no reservations admitting that they enjoyed it back then and took it very seriously, even Adi says that “Killing is something you do fast. Dump the bodies and go home.” he then says, “We didn't want a big crowd.” It was a well thought out plan and they went about their job like any other office worker. So when they Anwar confronts the journalist Soaduon Siragar -who’s office the squad worked out of during those years- about how he claims to not know what was going on you start to wonder whether their guilt has convinced themselves that everyone knew and that makes it all right. That because everyone was aware and didn't stop then (not that they could) then all blame was not squarely on them.
—— An Aside about Star Wars
The protagonists in the film Star Wars are called Rebels. Since 1977 we have rooted Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on. They are taking on the oppressive Empire. And in the end the Rebels win but had they not won the history books would have painted them as terrorists. Luke charged with treason as well as blowing up a government building (The Death Star). Anwar and his crew were the Rebels in 1965 but because their side won and is still winning they are the Heroes. When asked about the Communist Propaganda film that was going around at the time Anwar says, “For me, that film is the one thing that makes me feel less guilty.” to which Ari adds, “Not me… It’s easy to make the Communists look bad after we killed them. That film is designed to make them look evil.” It is all a matter of perspective and excuse.
—— Aside about Star Wars over
Throughout the film we are privy to many conversation where you witness each member of the team express their reasons for doing what they did. Some have an underlying level of guilt and others are quite content that they did nothing wrong. One such scene has Anwar and Adi fishing at the side of a river. They discuss the past like two weary philosophers pontificating the affect of Death on a person and one says, “There’s been no official apology- but what’s so hard about apologizing? The Government would apologize, not us.” Ari has placed all the guilt on the then uprising government for his past discretions. And again, much like the men who fight our wars, for causes that our government believes are righteous causes, a point is made.
The Act of Killing is not a lesson in the history of Indonesia. You won’t learn the finer details of why these men needed to ascend (descend?) from Theatre Gangsters to Executioners. All you will see are men who have done very bad things in the name of a good they believed in. One can place their own principles and ideals upon these men; sit in your movie seat with your buttered popcorn and significant other at your side and strictly and resolutely believe that these men are wrong. And that will be your opinion but I urge you to watch this profound documentary as a glimpse inside the mind of every Service man who has fought for their country on either side of the line.
So again, the question is not why they did it, the question is How does one live with it after it is done. When you think of all the men that came back from Vietnam broken and lost from a war that no one wanted them to be in you can perhaps see what these men are living with everyday. They fought for the abolishment of the Communists from Indonesia. They were told the Communists were evil. And in the process they also began to like it, take pride in it. It was a job to them. Like working at Tim Hortons. And any good employer wants employees that take their job seriously.
At the close of the film after Anwar has shown his Grandchildren his filmed Death Scene and had countless conversations with the other men in the squad about the rights and wrongs of it all we watch as he stands on the balcony where most of the murders took place. As if the ghosts of the 1000 odd human beings he killed were choking him he dry heaves so much that he has to sit down. At his feet is a wire not unlike the ones he used to kill with and a burlap sack like the kind he used to carry out the pieces, he dry heaves more.
When the film begins you meet highly intelligent men whom you wonder if you would get along with them if you met them in another place, another time. But as the film moves forward you learn of their atrocities and how proud they are of them and you wonder again how such smart men could do such a thing. But by the end you see broken men who have done everything they could to surround themselves with light and family and fill the black holes in their lives so they don’t see the ghosts of their pasts behind their eyes when the quiet of the night takes hold. Perhaps an apology is where they need to begin for their own healing.
—— The Denouement
This profoundly movie film is a must see. It is on the top of my list of last 2013 and certainly the last 20. It is not for the weak of heart or stomach but I urge everyone to witness this movie. You may feel the opposite of me and if so voice it. This is a movie to be endured. This is a movie you should watch and have a discussion group about afterward and then watched again.
I cannot recommend this documentary enough. It is on sale at the Drafthouse Films site and both the DVD and Blu-ray version as the Theatrical cut and The Extended Cut (which I review here) as well as more interviews and commentary, including interviews with Werner Herzog who helped produce this film after seeing early cuts of it.