If I was to say, “Let me tell you a story”, and simply stood before you, saying or doing nothing, you’d likely wonder where the story is. If I was to say “This is the story” and point to myself, still silent and standing there, you’d probably be confused. And disappointed. Not much of a story you will think. Josh Oppenheimer’s ripping doco The Act of Killing toys with such notions of story and history and makes the case that life, and all of those who sail in her, constructs itself constantly, makes lies and tells stories that rattle around in our own heads for a lifetime. The Act of Killing murders the belief that life is anything more than a story, devised, disseminated and ultimately desperate.

The Act of Killing takes a band of state-sponsored killers who were part of one of the world’s great crimes against itself: the Indonesian “anti-communist” genocide of the mid-1960’s . And it asks them to tell their story. The director allows them to direct him in a movie to essay their concepts and visions of the history they made in that time. We follow these thugs as they construct the version of themselves they have lived with ever since, right before the cameras. They conceive a movie to depict their acts, the acts of killing.

From early on, when one of the characters Anwar Congo, re-enacts his murders in between dancing a samba on the site where it was done – literally dancing on their graves – you know this film is something special. Only the firmest jaw will refuse to drop as this narrative plays out. It is horrible to experience, and draws you like a magnet to a truth implied. How can one human being be like this?

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The truth implied is that they can’t. Well, not independently. They need a story to do so and for these guys, it is provided by the state of Indonesia, a political movement called Pancasila Youth and, by a fake history. Take them away and there is nothing left beyond the darkness of what they have done, an eternal vacuum. Behind it all is the realisation that human beings differ from other life forms not because we think, but because we tell stories to make our lives. We are narrative driven mammals. This is both our curse and our beauty. And our stories can be both.

As the movie within the movie in The Act of Killing takes shape, scene by scene, the killers’ story unravels, the threads unspool and hang lose. The fiction used to justify, even honour, these heinous acts becomes consumed by a growing sense that there can be no justification, no honour, in such rampant, unfounded brutality. From here, the very impossibility of any truth is only a quick, sharp intake of breath away. And once you’re there, there’s no going back.

T2T spoke with director Josh Oppenheimer via Skype from New York as he edited his next film in his “Indonesian diptych”. For him, The Act of Killing began as an exploration from the victim’s point of view. But he soon realised the greater truths, counter-intuitively perhaps, were on the other side of power dynamic. “We were advised to film the perpetrators. We were told ‘They will boast and pose and through this you will get the sense of how they operate in Indonesia’.

True enough, they did and, after meeting, says Oppenheimer, more than 40 of these lowlifes, he stumbled upon Anwar Congo. “His pain was closest to surface. His past was present. He is more haunted, more troubled.” Congo’s pain is not immediately obvious as he flits through his actions to make the movie of his life. It would be a spoiler to give away the dramatic counterpoint of his dancing at the place where he has killed so many, but I will nominate it for one of the most compelling of any scene in any documentary of the last 10 years.

Act of Killing flips the victim/perpetrator paradigm on its head. Here, the killer is the victim, though not one we are expected to have much sympathy for. But, in this is, says Oppenheimer, there is a positive moral conclusion. Anwar is human enough to feel the horror of what he has done, purely because he tries to cover it. The other characters too have their devices and tactics to complete the “desperate attempt to justify what they have done,” and thus, we see their ultimate humanity. If they have to cover it, they must know they have something to cover. In the recognition is the humanity.

These are the cracks that widen and which the film explores.

“The film makes visible the second rate fantasies that we live with,” says the director. And, if we extrapolate personal narrative into history – and really what is the difference? – the very foundations of human existence begin to look shaky and porous to query. For Oppenheimer, seeing The Act of Killing as an allegory for the entire human narrative is appropriate. “History,” he says, “is an inconsistent and dramatic disaster.” Just like our lives.

Much has been made of the surreality of The Act of Killing. But that only emphasises the narrow view of the human experience we have been obliged to cultivate. For, this is what is in our minds. It is such odd and illogical visions that, when filtered by “reality”, all our thoughts and lies, all our vaunted and layered stories become. And so, “What begins as a documentary turns into a hallucinatory fever dream.” And it’s as real as anything I’ve seen.

Looking ahead, Oppenheimer argues that not enough is made of the personal view in documentary making. The fly on the all view, is, he says, a dishonest reflection of reality.

“Capturing unadorned reality is a lie.”

“I think documentaries have done themselves a great dis-service. We haven’t done enough with self-conciousness in documentaries. There is potential in self-consciousness.”

The final scene of The Act of Killing is a crescendo of surreality and artifice. It’s a look inside the mind of a man struggling to find the tools build over what he has done. And failing. The power of this scene is that we recognise our own frailties in the face of a world in which stories are dust, where everything is nothing and nothing is everything.


Title – The Act of Killing
Makers – Final Cut
Couch Time – 115 Mins.
How to Catch it – Screening at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival, July 28 and August 3. In cinemas from October.
High Point – A whole new style of doco making
Low Point –  It ended


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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