When we see Anwar Congo spending time with his grandsons in The Act of Killing, the scene should be a heartwarming one. The old man is tender and attentive with the boys as he instructs them on how best to care for an injured chick, but the apparent innocence of this sight is tainted by what we know about the man. We have already heard Congo describe in explicit detail how he tortured and executed countless men by tying a piece of wire around their necks and pulling it until the deed is done. Later in the film, we see him calling his grandchildren to sit on his knee and watch a filmed recreation of his bloody past. He talks of his crimes in a casual, carefree manner, displaying little conflict or remorse as he does so.
Anwar Congo was a death squad leader in Indonesia in 1965. Following an attempted coup, teams of ruthless gangsters were enlisted and ordered to purge the country of communists, with the resulting death toll being estimated at anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million. The men who carried out these executions still live in the region now. They are old men, but they still recall the events of the 1960s with clarity and pride. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to get their stories, and he had no trouble getting them to talk. They take him to the sites where they committed genocide, they cheerfully recall the ease with which communists or alleged communists were condemned ("One wink and they were dead," one claims), and one particularly repugnant character reminisces about raping 14 year-old girls ("I'd say it's going to be hell for you but heaven on earth for me," he states with a leering grin). Oppenheimer just lets them talk, and then he takes things one daring step further.
Oppenheimer gives his subjects the opportunity to make films depicting their past actions in any style they desire. The men readily take up the challenge, believing that the work they produce will be of vital historical importance for younger generations, but for viewers watching The Act of Killing, this takes the film into incredibly murky moral territory. To see these men glorify their crimes and paint themselves as heroic figures is stomach-churning. They dress as '30s Hollywood gangsters, name-dropping Brando and Pacino, and Anwar Congo dyes his white hair black in order to be a stronger leading man. They have a ball as gangsters, and carry with their fantasy recreation of their memories, adapting them into a western and even cross-dressing to take part in a surreal musical. While their productions may be amateurish, the participants all take it very seriously, fully dedicating themselves to their work with a conviction that clearly traumatises a group of children who see a village massacre being portrayed.
As queasy as it is to watch murderers indulging in the recreation of their abhorrent crimes, the true purpose of Oppenheimer's tactic gradually begins to reveal itself as Anwar Congo's involvement in the filmmaking takes an unexpected turn. He lets slip that he is sometimes haunted in nightmares by the ghosts of those he has killed, and as the film progresses we often find him lingering uncomfortably on the fringes of the action. This man who so boldly demonstrated his technique for torturing suspected communists is suddenly beginning to contemplate the true extent of his actions. Oppenheimer's most potent move is to get the murderers to portray their own victims in the reconstructions, a twist that suddenly breaks through whatever defences Congo had built around his own sense of self-disgust. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, Congo's conscience comes flooding to the surface – "I did this to so many people, Josh" he tearfully tells the director.
The Act of Killing is surely one of the most creative, provocative, weird and powerful films ever made about genocide. It displays the manner in which men, prompted by orders and emboldened by their position within a group of like-minded individuals, can cut themselves off from humanity and commit the most heinous deeds. Oppenheimer's brilliantly constructed film is an audacious gamble that pays off, by forcing a man like Anwar Congo to see his actions with fresh eyes, and to allow himself for a moment to inhabit the role of the men he killed without a second thought. Roger Ebert once described cinema as an "empathy machine," and that idea is vividly enforced here. Through the act of filmmaking, Anwar Congo's life was revealed to him in a light that exposed all of its darkest corners. "Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?" He asks Oppenheimer. Of course, he is only experiencing a fraction of what his victims felt, but it will be enough to haunt him for the rest of his days.