Two MovieMaker editors talk about their favorite moments in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a shockingly unique record of Indonesian executioner Anwar Congo.

the act of killing

Lara Colocino, Special Projects Editor:

Anwar Congo is a cinephile. He excitedly notes his admiration for John Wayne, Al Pacino, and Marlon Brando, perverting their filmic personas in the process of making them his own. What were in their hands mere fictionalized characters, living only on the screen, are now incarnate in a ruthless killer who boasts unabashedly about his work – the executing of a thousand lives. As the star of Oppenheimer’s documentary, Anwar leaps at the opportunity to archive his history as some sort of perverse epic—a musical of sorts with dancing, fantasy, and stark realism. His envisioned film features Indonesian showgirls dancing in front of exotic backgrounds, gangsters wearing crisp suits and chain smoking in a noir scene, and elements of humor (his sidekick, Herman, constantly dressed in drag). Yet in recreating his past, Anwar’s façade slowly begins to crack, realizing the magnitude of the atrocity he participated in. The true horror of Anwar’s actions become clearer when Anwar plays the part of a prisoner destined for death during an interrogation scene. He is visibly shaken by the pretense of being killed—by his chosen method, in fact (choking victims with a thin metal wire). Upon watching the clip of his murder, he wonders aloud if his victims felt as much fear and pain as he did. Oppenheimer replies, cautiously, that Anwar’s victims felt more than a simulated death could ever impart. A confused Anwar stares off into space, contemplating this fact in silence – or perhaps even disregarding it completely. Whether this delusion stems from a place of protection or total ignorance is unknown. The moment is bleakly open-ended: Oppenheimer attempts, perhaps to no avail, to find a place for remorse in the life of a government-sanctioned killer.

the act of killing

Kelly Leow, Associate Editor:

Adi, Anwar’s former colleague, is a fascinating figure. With his unassuming, bland expression and glasses, he often comes across as the most lucid and rational of the film’s main subjects – he possesses none of the flash and pomp of the colorful, larger-than-life Anwar and Herman. Yet it is precisely this quiet logic that makes him so absolutely horrifying in scene after scene of calm, guiltless recounting of his former deeds. In one small moment mid-film, Adi and Anwar are prepping on one of their sets (a rattan room with a table at which the gangsters are interrogating a communist, played by Anwar’s neighbor). A journalist who used to work in the same building as them in the ‘60s is telling them that he had no idea about the mass slaughter that went on in the office next to his. “I never saw anything,” he says, smiling bemusedly. “You were so smooth, and I rarely went up to your office.” The man grins obsequiously at Anwar and Adi, as if paying them a compliment, but Adi cuts in with characteristic frankness. He tells the journalist that he can’t believe it – the executioners never tried to hide what they were doing, and the man’s publisher himself directed most of the killings. Even the neighbors knew. The journalist is no longer grinning; now he chews on his lip, disturbed and embarrassed, with nothing to say to this relentless logic. Adi is right – we almost pity the journalist for his apparent willing blindness to atrocity. But then of course we remember that the person chastising him for selectivity of vision is none other than a man who claims to feel zero remorse for his own rampant murders – and once again (as happens often in The Act of Killing), a moral vortex opens up.

The Act of Killing is currently in limited release from Drafthouse Films. Check out the film’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

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