In one of the great (maybe the few?) classic Hollywood one-liners of recent vintage, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men screams "you can't handle the truth!". The truth is precisely what is at stake in Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's rabbit-hole of a documentary that is The Act of Killing, and you may not necessarily be able to handle it, but it certainly isn't there in the way you expect it to be.

     By asking the North Sumatran gangsters who killed thousands in mid-1960s Indonesia at the behest of the Suharto military regime to recreate their killing spree in a film, Mr. Oppenheimer and his co-directors, Ms. Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, are opening Pandora's box, unleashing demons that can't quite be put back inside at a finger click. The fact that all of the Indonesian crew that worked on the film are protected in the credits under the guise of anonymity is enough proof of the inflammatory nature of the film, born out of another project Mr. Oppenheimer was working on in Indonesia. While shooting The Globalization Tapes, he wondered about putting on screen the plights and memories of the survivors and descendants of victims of the 1965/66 massacre of communists, left-leaning activists and ethnic Chinese, in short, those who either opposed the regime or were inconvenient; but found no takers. The "official story" had been rewritten to leave out the victims and no one would even dare set the record straight - as former enforcer Ali Zukaldry says at one point, "the Geneva Convention may be right today, but what about tomorrow?", in a chilling Orwellian rebuke to the definition of victory.

     Since the victims wouldn't step forward, Ms. Cynn and Mr. Oppenheimer inverted the premise, as the victors were in general more than happy to brag about their experiences; The Act of Killing focuses on the somewhat lawless region of North Sumatra, where rules are still today applied differently, and where the men who ran Suharto's death squads are not only alive and well but also in power and open about their past. The narrative through-line of the film, then, is the decision to ask the perpetrators to reenact their deeds under the guise of whatever their preferred Hollywood genre - horror, musical, gangster film, war movie - since many of them were small-time gangsters in the city of Medan, "preman" who lived as "free men" outside the constraints of the law, starting out as ticket touts outside the cinemas that played Hollywood movies and graduating to run their own outfits with the blessing of the authorities.

     Cinema was a huge part of the gangsters' life at the time, and getting to act in a film is probably the high point of their life. And, in the case of the now sexagenarian Anwar Congo, a sort of growing realisation of the true nature of his crimes, the recreation of the interrogations he ran in makeshift open-air torture chambers or banal offices renders him finally aware of the reality of his work. Schooled in the make-believe violence learnt at the silver screen, the real-life killings became in themselves a movie that only through being relived at a once-removed distance turns real. Mr. Zukaldry, a fellow enforcer who has moved from Medan and lives a quiet life with his wife and daughter, has made his peace with his conscience and, as he says, "Not everything true is good". He finds the whole exercise borderline dangerous, but not necessarily useless; for Mr. Congo, the reenactments show him the real extent of what he did, like his eyes were suddenly open.

     The result is equally, viscerally powerful for the viewer, and probably a lot more significant in making the history of this forgotten genocide relatable to the viewer than the original concept of letting the victims tell the tale. It's a lot more rattling to see them terrified when called upon to work as extras in the reenactments; it also makes us ask where do the filmmakers stand on all this, as you realise the "dance with the devil" the project required, touching on the unsavoury nature of contemporary Indonesian politics, having to deal daily with killers who are unrepentant about their deeds. But, at the same time, the directors are aware of the complexities of these people, who, for all their horrible deeds, are still human beings with their own feelings and aspirations. And there is a sly but equally disturbing suggestion that it's far too easy to distort the essence of Hollywood cinema for darker means - just as video games and music are often blamed for someone's violence, so is here the nature of genre films taken as a diseased influence in a real-life case of institutional violence that has gone almost unstudied. Ms. Cynn and Mr. Oppenheimer do not affirm it for sure, but merely play up the parallels, as indeed they do between "third world" and "first world" politics.

     In the end, The Act of Killing is a feverish, clammy exploration of the unintended ramifications of thought and deed, of personal and political responsibility, asking difficult questions without necessarily giving easy answers, but keeping one true course: the truth shall set you free, as John said in the Gospels.

Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
Cinematography: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree, Anonymous (colour)
Editors: Niels Pagh Andersen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit, Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas Mestre, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Erik Andersson
Producers: Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joram ten Brink, Anonymous, Ms. Cynn, Anne Köhncke, Mr. Oppenheimer, Michael Uwemedimo  (Final Cut For Real in co-production with Piraya Film and Novaya Zemlya, in association with Spring Films)
Denmark/Norway/United Kingdom, 2012, 160 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Pulsar do Mundo sidebar advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 18th 2013


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