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."

Comments

Is it because it is not addressed in the documentary that this article about the mass killings in Indonesia doesn't once mention the US who began a 'secret' bombing campaign to divide Indonesia in 1958 then supported the military in the coup against the democratically elected government in 1965? It seems to me that it would take effort for anyone who knows about this history to NOT recognize that the mass murderers have gone unpunished primarily due to US backing and responsibility, which extends to the 1975 invasion and subsequent genocide of East Timor.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 09, 2013 @ 10:31 am

At the time of his removal from office. He also had an odd habit of removing people from office and then appointing his own people. He like many third world losers had a military fetish which was hell on the economy and sent the nation into debt.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

The usual tired matlockian schtick -the right murdered a million people (with US backing), oh but Sukarno appointed supporters to positions in government (what horror!). See, so it's all the same. See, left and right are equivalent! What morally repugnant rubbish! Defending genocide is a new low, even for matlock.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

In Greg's demented fantasy world, Communists didn't murder 100 million people and the capitalism is the greatest force for evil the world has ever known, with the US a close second.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

Amazing that you managed to fit them both in the same short glib post. I'm not the one making excuses for mass murders. You have to be completely devoid of morality to respond to critics of mass murder by saying "oh but the other guy only appointed his friends." I mean, what sort of a sick freak would say that?

Posted by Greg on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

not your thing, eh Greg?

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

are less dead in the fringe left world.

I just pointed out that Sukarno was not an advocate for democracy, to Greg that means that I advocated state murder.

Sukarno who was no stranger to state murder is a hero to people like Greg for whatever reason. The US has a shitty foreign policy I think, we should be leaving these nations to their own devices in my opinion.

Mentioning that these places are run by one brand of thug, is akin to being for the other brand of thug. It puts people like Greg in the comical position of defending murders while complaining about murderers.

Greg would have made a good Gestapo or KGB henchman.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

I don't expect Greg to keep track of my views, I would expect such a self identified intellectual to be better at reasoning skills.

I think the USA should butt out of the internal politics of these third world shit holes. I'm not a follower of the subjective and irrational/opportunist ravings of the Chomsky left like Greg, but I think the USA should minds it's own business. American involvement in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Guatamala, etc... has produced nothing but misery for everyone involved.

For Greg doctrine is king, Sukarno was a white knight who was a charter member of the ACLU. Which is comical leftist idiocy, it's even better when paraded as righteousness by useful idiots.

Greg is a member of the Jesse Helms left.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

There is no moral equivalency between Sukarno and Suharto.

Sukarno has a mixed record. He liberated the country from colonialism, but also began to institute some undemocratic measures in an effort to govern a country with many disparate groups competing for power.

Suharto was a bloody mass murderer almost on the scale of Pol Pot.

To make any sort of moral equivalency between the two is to once again demonstrate how completely devoid of any conscience you are. Thank god you'll never be anything more than a troll in your mother's basement. I shudder to think what would happen if you were ever given any real power. How do you put it? Oh yes... you parade your lack of morals as morals.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

I just pointed out that Sukarno was no fan of democracy.

The US should have left the whole ongoing operation alone.

You are the guy who is picking a murderer and going with it.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

Saying things like I'm just picking one murderer over another, or calling Sukarno a dictator, implies an equivalency. I would argue that neither is even true. In fact, I had just made a long post going over the history of Indonesia (you are, after all, talking to someone who knows his history). Unfortunately I hit the wrong key and the damn computer deleted everything I wrote. For now, suffice it to say that the two are not equivalent. Not even close. And while you do not use the specific words "they are equivalent," the theme and character of your whole set of posts is just a continuation of your tired old schtick of how the left and right are supposedly the same.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

Your self referential "(you are, after all, talking to someone who knows his history)." is always comical.

The first poster said Sukarno's government was elected, it was not I pointed that out. Then you posted a crazy ad homonym and strawman, then you complain that someone posted an ad homonym and strawman about you.

Then your self referentialism again. So good.

Greg we agree that the US should butt out of the third world, your self styled expertise has you being OK with Shah of Iran style dictators while bemoaning others supposed love if dictators.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

When have I ever said I was OK with the Shah of Iran?

Or are you comparing Sukarno to the Shah? If so, again, there's no comparison.

Sukarno liberated his country from colonialism, and he was in fact elected democratically. (Much) later, he took some undemocratic measures, but frankly the country was falling apart. Under similar circumstances, I don't know what could have been done. He was not a "military fetishist" and he was not a murderer. He used the military to repel invasions and instigations of rebellion, backed by the western powers. The US would have done much worse under similar circumstances.

The Shah was the complete opposite. The Shah was not elected in any shape or form. The Shah was *backed* by colonial powers, after those colonial powers *overthrew* a democratically elected government and installed him. And the Shah was, in fact, a murderer.

Suharto was even worse. Suharto was a genocidal maniac of nearly Pol-Pot proportions. And you're been acting as an apologist for that regime.

Posted by Greg on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 10:03 pm
wow

Greg does his left wing version of the Jean Kirkpatrick thing.

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/dictatorships-double-standards/

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

You're talking about the US regime, right?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

but I am at this moment pointing out the terrible budgeting of a third world dictator.

The Shah of Iran did the same thing and is hated by the Chomsky left, Sukarno did same and is considered a OK guy by the Chomsky left. The same Chomsky left that accuses the Chomsky/Helms right of a lack any sense of right and wrong.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 10, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

For the sake of consistency, shouldn't you be slagging Mossadegh as a 'third world loser' instead of failing to equate Sukarno with the Shah? Considering you spend your life on this website, you sure have an easy time calling out the shortcomings of others.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 8:36 am

so far.

But i would say that Mossadegh didn't have the same love of the military that Sukarno and the Shah did.

Ask Greg, he is the self styled expert in history.

heh

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 11, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

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