Anwar Congo seems like a gentle, soft-spoken old man, but in the mid-60s he murdered as many as a thousand people when the Indonesian military, capitalizing on a brief coup attempt against President Sukarno, decided to exterminate the Communist Party of Indonesia. More than a half million people died in the purge, many of them beheaded. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s unique and unforgettable documentary The Act of Killing, Congo stands on the rooftop patio of his home, demonstrating how he would minimize blood flow by tying a length of wire to a post, wrapping it around a victim’s neck, and pulling against it with his full weight. Later the snowy-haired old man sits at home with his grandchildren all around him, watching the earlier scene on video. “I would never have worn white pants,” he remarks.
The killings were never punished, and many of the perpetrators, who seized victims’ property as their own, are still part of the power structure in Indonesia, which held its first presidential election in 2004. As Oppenheimer explains in the prefatory titles, these aging executioners speak proudly of their actions, and “to understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished.” The Act of Killing records the process of staging these vignettes, some of them in the style of Hollywood movies; Congo, whose favorites are Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and John Wayne, stages one interrogation with himself and his fellow actors clad in the fedoras and baggy postwar suits of The Godfather. Later, in a musical spectacular staged in a verdant valley with a waterfall in the background, “Born Free” plays on the soundtrack as Congo stands center stage in a black robe, surrounded by a female chorus. A murder victim pulls the wire from his neck and gives Congo a medal “for executing me and sending me to heaven. I thank you a thousand times for everything.”
These self-serving fantasies would probably seem unbearably perverse if Oppenheimer didn’t also provide a close and damning study of the current political climate in Indonesia, where orange-clad paramilitaries still stomp around intimidating people, indoctrinating local children, and raking in the bucks from gambling and smuggling operations. When the end credits roll, no fewer than 45 crew members are listed as “anonymous.” But for Anwar Congo there’s no place to hide: he complains of nightmares, and even stages one in which a victim comes back to haunt him. In the movie’s toughest shot (recorded, apparently, at the beginning of the process), he sits on the patio where he used to do his dirty work, trying to describe what happened but stopping periodically to dry-heave for what seems like an eternity. He might have been born free, but death may be a different story.