In the nation of Indonesia in the year 1965, there was an attempted coup to overthrow the Western-backed military which was threatening President Sukarno, a failed try at ousting an extreme right wing dictatorship, one which has lasted decades right up to the making of this documentary and beyond. That new, army-led government carried out a systematic, state-sponsored mass murder of around two and a half million people (estimates vary) whom they accused of being Communists, whether they were or not: essentially, all they had to do was claim their victims were of that political stripe and that was all the excuse they needed to slaughter them and destroy the lives of their families. Now, with the main players in this sustained massacre still in power, they tell their side of the story...
It's easy to let a film like The Act of Killing simply unfold before you in a mood of baffled bemusement; it was not particularly aiming for a highly polished appearance, much of it comes across as amateur footage edited together without much regard for narrative, and after all most documentaries contain as much narrative as a work of fiction. Yet if you stuck with it, gradually getting to know the main "characters", as the end credits called them, the full horror of the terror they had visited upon countless innocent people began to dawn, and you realised what had seemed loose and undisciplined on the surface was actually packing quite a punch, for them as well as yourself.
The tale of countries suffering under the yoke of a dictatorship, whether backed by the East or the West, is sadly not unique to Indonesia, but by taking this as a microcosm of political injustice simply through concentrating on a handful of the perpetrators, now very successful in public life, the general effect was illuminating. What director Joshua Oppenheimer, a man whose own family was no stranger to this kind of genocide as many of them were executed by the Nazis in World War II, carried out here was to leave the killers hoist to their own petard. In a deceptively simple move (it certainly deceived their subjects) he appealed to their vanity by having them create their own movie, in whatever style they chose.
The story they chose to re-enact was not fictional, though throughout they voice their ambition to go one better than the Hollywood movies they admire so much, but their criminal acts, acts which they had never been punished for because they had won out over their abundance of victims. Therefore we see scene after scene of strikingly bizarre behaviour as the boastful men pretend to kill off those playing the victims in the same manner that they had done in real life, complete with makeup and special effects - after all, if you'd cut a bunch of people's heads off there's no point in skimping on the realism. Not one of these men have felt any remorse whatsoever, and as the film draws on the greater its potential is to disturb since there is nobody to stand up to them, with you wishing for some kind of conscience to strike them, of which there is indeed an eventual inkling.
Everyone's too scared, even those who back their murderous actions, and it was telling the end credits were littered with the word "Anonymous" where locals involved in the production refused to use their actual names for fear of reprisals. What was even more unsettling was how genial and ordinary the men were otherwise; one moment they are beaming and being kind to small children, the next one is informing the camera of the best way to execute someone without making too much mess (all that blood stinks, after all) or commenting how satisfying it is to rape fourteen-year-olds. That there is a militia group made up of millions of self-proclaimed gangsters, who love to tell us that word means "free men" since they are free to behave how they please, demonstrates Indonesia's political problems are not going away soon, but there is a small hope for the future when one of the killers, Anwar, realises the enormity of his crimes. The film fittingly ends with him dry heaving and convulsing with disgust, though not before a revoltingly self-applauding musical number set to Born Free; the TV propaganda show we see earlier equally chilling and downright weird.