It will take a long time to remove the memory of a confessed mass murderer dressed as a woman ogling a group of Indonesian beauties dancing out of the mouth of an iron fish. I’m prepared to bet that’s not a sentence that you will be able to read in connection with any other film but the surreal documentary ‘The Act of Killing’
The premise is chillingly simple. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer approached the perpetrators of one of the biggest and perhaps most forgotten massacres of the last 50 years; the mass killing of supposed ‘communists’ by the military dictatorship of Indonesia in 1965.
Amazingly several leading figures including it’s most feared executioner, Anwar Congo, agreed to take part. They were allowed to re-enact their crimes in any way they liked.
It quickly becomes clear that Congo and his henchman are keen fans of Hollywood gangster films and use killing techniques borrowed from this genre.
They clearly believe they are creating a work of cinematic art with their depictions but along the way they slowly begin to reveal how hard it is for them to live with what they have done.
Congo has frequent nightmares about the decapitation of one victim, still seeing his staring eyes as he shuts his own.
Others have seen psychiatrists in order to control their attacks of ‘nerves’ while some are just in total denial and happily shop in a Jakarta mall while explaining their total lack of guilt.
The whole exercise is a stunning expose of the mind of a murderer and the lies we tell ourselves to cope with our most despicable acts.
The film ends with Congo at the scene of one killing floor, where memories of his cruelty cause him to start retching repeatedly as if trying to expel from his being the sins of his life.
It’s a rare moment of self-awareness from a man who by taking part in this unique documentary as metaphorically hung himself.