Perpetrators relive their genocide onscreen in 'The Act of Killing'

Werner Herzog produces a shocking documentary on Indonesia

Lights, cameras, mass murder

Drafthouse Films

On a rooftop terrace where he killed hundreds of Indonesians with his bare hands, Anwar Congo is showing just how how he did it. A white-haired man with a pleasant face and a gentle manner, he says he beat the victims to death at first, but found there was too much blood. “When we cleaned it up,” he recalls, “it smelled awful.” A garrotte proved more efficient. To demonstrate, Congo wraps one end of a wire around a post, the other end around a friend’s neck, and pulls it taut with a wooden handle. Then, with the wire around his own neck, he sings and dances a merry little cha-cha on his former killing ground. “I’ve tried to forget all this with good music and dancing,” he sighs. “A little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little ecstasy.”

That scene begins an astonishing documentary called The Act of Killing, in which Congo and his cronies vividly re-enact their role in the genocide of more than one million “Communists,” all killed within a year of the 1965 military overthrow of the Indonesian government. These ex-gangsters, who served as the military’s executioners, agreed to re-enact their horrific crimes for American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, 38, who was making a documentary about the genocide. With surreal bravado, the men brag about murder, and stage scenes of torture and execution. As if taking part in some psychotic school project, they proudly create crude costumes and special effects makeup, while mimicking styles that range from film noir to Bollywood pageantry.

There’s never been anything like it: a spectacle of genocide dramatized on camera by the perpetrators. “It’s unprecedented in the history of cinema,” says documentary legend Werner Herzog, who jumped aboard as executive producer after seeing the film, along with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris. And for Congo and his gang, the romance of cinema is where it all began. They began their careers scalping tickets to movies in the ’50s, and were inspired by Hollywood gangster films, even borrowing ideas for their own killings. That they can be so cavalier about mass murder seems unfathomable. But unlike Cambodia or Rwanda, Indonesia has never addressed its genocide and the perpetrators are still celebrated, tied to Indonesia’s regime by paramilitary groups.

Their involvement in the film “starts as a vanity project,” Opphenheimer told Maclean’s. “They want to project themselves into history. It’s also intended as a show of force.” As they act out their glory days, the killers become engrossed in their production, and indict themselves on camera with a confounding naïveté. In one epic sequence they re-enact a village massacre with bewildered extras, coached by a deputy minister who yells “Cut, cut, cut” from atop a military vehicle. Before they set huts ablaze with a zeal worthy of Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, one of the thugs reminisces about rape: “If they were pretty, I’d rape them all, especially if you’d get one who’s only 14 years old. Delicious.”

As Oppenheimer lets the killers mount their film within his film, most show no remorse. One gangster gleefully performs in drag. Another, asked if he worries about being tried for war crimes, says he’d welcome the fame. But we develop an eerie empathy for the haunted Congo, who undergoes a wrenching transformation. “By the end,” says Oppenhemier, “he’s no longer trying to glorify what he did. By re-enacting mass murder, perhaps he thinks he can make it okay. As viewers we know that’s doomed. He finds himself reliving a kind of acting—and discovers acting was always part of the act of killing.”

Since its premiere at Toronto’s film festival last September, The Act of Killing has had a massive impact in Indonesia. The country’s media have finally broken their silence on the genocide, led by Tempo, the leading newsmagazine, which devoted a double issue to the film, reinforced with its own investigation. “There’s no going back,” says Oppenheimer, “no pretending the emperor is wearing a new suit of clothes.” Congo watched the film in Jakarta. The director, who joined him via Skype, says, “He had a very painful reaction. At the end he was silent for a long time. Finally he said, ‘The film shows what it’s like to be me.’ ”