The killer inside me

Film: Jawdropping 'The Act of Killing' examines the psychological effects of mass murder without remorse 

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Murder fantasies: The Act of Killing
PHOTO COURTESY OF DRAFTHOUSE FILMS

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM What does Anwar Congo — a man who has brutally strangled hundreds of people with piano wire — dream about?

As Joshua Oppenheimer's Indonesia-set documentary The Act of Killing discovers, there's a thin line between a guilty conscience and a haunted psyche, especially for an admitted killer who's never been held accountable for anything. In fact, Congo has lived as a hero in North Sumatra for decades — along with hundreds of others who participated in the country's ruthless anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s.

In order to capture this surreal state of affairs, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a few subjects — like the cheerful Congo, fond of flashy clothes, and the theatrical Herman Koto — and a method, spelled out by The Act of Killing's title card: "The killers proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes in whatever ways they wished." Because Congo and company are huge movie buffs, they chose to re-create their crimes with silver-screen flourish.

There are garish costumes and gory makeup. Koto cross-dresses as a Wild West damsel in distress. There are props: a stuffed tiger, a dummy torso with a detachable head. There are dancing girls. And there are mental consequences, primarily for Congo, whose emotional fragility escalates as the filming continues.

The Act of Killing is, to be succinct, mind-blowing. It's overwhelming and shocking. The unseen Oppenheimer — who openly converses with his subjects from behind the camera — is the film's main director, with assists from co-directors Christine Cynn and "Anonymous;" given the subject matter, it's not surprising that many Indonesian crew members are credited that way.

To understand how The Act of Killing came to be, I tracked down Oppenheimer, who's been giving a steady stream of interviews with the film's release. Initially, he says, he went with Cynn to Indonesia to interview plantation workers who were being poisoned by herbicides. Though the workers were in desperate need of a union, it soon became apparent that "the biggest problem they had in organizing was fear. Their parents or grandparents had been in a strong plantation workers' union until 1965 — when they were put in concentration camps by the army because they were accused of being communist sympathizers. Many were [eventually] killed by local death squads. So the workers were afraid this could happen again."

Oppenheimer and Cynn soon returned to make "a film about what had happened in 1965 — the horrors that this community had lived through, and also the regime of fear and corruption that was based on what had happened." But the task proved more difficult than they'd planned.

"It turned out that survivors had been officially designated 'unclean' by the military and by the government, and were under surveillance. They weren't allowed access to decent jobs. They even had to get special permission to get married," Oppenheimer says. "So when we filmed the survivors, we would invariably be stopped by the police. They would take our tapes and our cameras, and detain us. It was very difficult to get anything done. And it was frightening, especially for the survivors."

Along the way, Oppenheimer began visiting neighbors — "initially, quite cautiously" — whom survivors suspected of being involved in the disappearances of their loved ones. "The perpetrators would invite me in, and I would ask them about their pasts, and what they did for a living," he recalls. "Immediately they would start talking about their role in the killings. Horrible stories, told in a boastful register, often in front of their children, grandchildren, or wives. Then they would invite me to the places where they killed and show me how they went about it. They'd launch into these spontaneous demonstrations. I was horrified."

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