From the Godfather series to Scarface to New Jack City, gangsters and their violence have been mythologized and celebrated often in American films. Whether actual gangsters would paint such heroic or tragic self portraits is an intriguing question, but in Joshua Oppenheimer's thoroughly engrossing The Act of Killing, the answer is far more interesting. The killers have stark and vivid imaginations and it's not clear what reaction revisiting the slaughter will provoke in them.
The self-described gangsters in Act of Killing actually worked in paramilitary groups in Indonesia in the 1960s, when a massive political purge resulted in the execution of an estimated one million citizens, including Indonesians of Chinese descent, intellectuals, dissidents and others. None of these gangsters was ever put on trial or even disempowered or marginalized. When given the chance to make a film about their lives and work, they picture themselves in surreal dreamscapes, feted with medals and choruses of beautiful women and thanked by their victims. They apply horror-gore makeup to each other while recreating torture and murder scenes. They mimic Mafia leaders in American gangster movies.
Oppenheimer made his unconventional film after abandoning a more straightforward documentary project about the mass killings. He encountered government resistance when trying to communicate with descendants of victims. But when a former death squad leader wanted to pose for photos with him, he noticed the man was proud of his past role. The gangster wasn't dodging or rationalizing his barbaric exploits, instead he seemed to want to glorify them.
Oppenheimer invited several death squad leaders in Sumatra to direct their own film about their grisly work. In the purges, people deemed difficult or undesirable by the government were labeled "communist" and executed, but the racket of shaking down merchants for cash and violently intimidating communities was an indistinguishable aspect of the same operation.
Newly minted directors Anwar Congo and Herman Koto delve into various film genres, including wonderfully bizarre sequences of surrealism in which the gratuitously paunchy Koto repeatedly dresses as a woman or goddess figure, sometimes as a victim and sometimes as an executioner. They also mimic American gangster and Western films that they loved as youth. And they stage realistic recreations of their terror campaigns, threatening to burn down peasants' homes and kill their families.
It's a complicated film, and Oppenheimer only includes short scenes from the thug directors' movie. Many scenes are marked by ambiguity, including footage of randomly recruited Indonesians acting on camera but seeming to express actual fear of the gangsters today. And in some clips, the gangster directors seem to pander to Oppenheimer's narrative, but whether any of them realize any self-awareness or remorse is debatable. Koto never approaches any self-doubt, and one killer dismissively notes that history is written by the winners.
The blend of documentary interviews, scenes from the killers' film and behind the scenes filming of the making of the killers' film makes this an incredibly gripping movie and an extraordinary insight into what has been called the banality of evil. It's also upsetting. The killers talk candidly about their methods, and its clear that political corruption, intimidation and extortion are still parts of everyday life in the communities where the gangsters still live and operate. — WILL COVIELLO