There is a scene near the beginning of the documentary “The Act of Killing” in which Anwar Congo, a self-professed mass murderer, dances the cha-cha on the rooftop patio where he once beat people to a pulp before strangling them with chicken wire.
It’s a moment that’s hard to watch at home. To imagine having stood there in person while he danced is nearly unfathomable. But, for Joshua Oppenheimer, it was merely one day in five years of filming the disturbing and brilliant documentary about the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. “I began this journey over a decade ago, when my collaborator Christine Cynn and I went to make a film [‘The Globalisation Tapes’] about people struggling to organize a union in a place where unions had been illegal,” Oppenheimer, 38, said in a recent phone call during his press tour. “It was my first time in Indonesia. I didn’t know Indonesian yet. ... They were afraid to organize a union because there had been a strong plantation union until 1965.”
That’s when Indonesia experienced an anti-communist purge following a failed coup that took the lives of between 500,000 and 2 million people.
Over a period of a little more than a year, communists, leftists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese-Indonesians were rounded up by paramilitary death squads directed by the Indonesian army. They were beaten, tortured and, more often than not, killed.
There was never a reckoning for the leaders of these death squads. Many went on to earn fame and fortune for their roles in the massacre, often ending up in government posts.
It is this aftermath, this bizarre world of glorified genocide that caught Oppenheimer’s interest.
The director began by reaching out to neighbors of the plantation workers who’d once been participants in the purge and were now living next door to the people whose parents they’d once helped kill.
“I would go and meet these neighbors who I heard were [death squad] perpetrators. ... I’d approach their houses, cautiously. ... They’d invite me into their house, offer me tea ... and immediately they’d open up about the killings, because the killings had been the biggest thing they’d ever done and the basis for any career they’d had afterward.”
The world Oppenheimer reveals in his documentary is a surreal one in which mass murderers appear on talk shows and brag about their exploits; a world where the vice president of a country appears at the rally of a paramilitary group and praises them for being gangsters. To Americans, it might seem like something out of a parallel dimension.
At the heart of much of it is Congo.
“Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I’d filmed,” Oppenheimer said. “I think I lingered on Anwar because his pain was close to the surface.”
Anwar Congo cuts a fascinating figure on screen. He’s at once repulsive and yet oddly likable in some ways — charismatic, sweet to his grandchildren.
American films play a strange role in the documentary. Congo and his friends were film buffs, and they suggest to Oppenheimer that it might be a good idea for them to act out the killings they carried out by imitating some of their favorite American film genres.
They put together a series of grotesque vignettes for Oppenheimer’s cameras, depicting atrocities with a surprising and disturbing flair. A gangster film, a horror film, a war film — each iteration a violent homage to the glory days of old. Congo, in particular, seems tickled by the idea of re-enacting his killings in the style of his favorite films, though toward the end of the movie, even he begins to see the horror in the re-enactments.
“It’s not so surprising that the re-enactments ultimately become the prisms through which he recognizes the horror of what he’s done,” Oppenheimer said of Congo. “Even if he’s never capable of recognizing it consciously and in words, I think by the end of the film, his body is literally choking on it.”
That’s not to say American film made Congo into a killer. While Congo describes leaving an Elvis Presley movie and walking across the street to torture communists, happily, Oppenheimer pointed out that “Elvis Presley musicals aren’t violent, they’re just stupid.”
Oppenheimer believes that Congo’s outward behavior — even the cha-cha — hid inner turmoil.
“The justification of killing is not necessarily a sign of pride, but it can be a sign of the opposite, that they know what they’ve done is wrong and that they’re desperately trying to get away from it,” he said. “I think he was profoundly haunted by what happened on the roof. Indeed, he says before he dances the cha-cha that he’s a good dancer because he was going out drinking, taking drugs and dancing to forget what he’d done.”
The Indonesian killings particularly hit home for Oppenheimer because his father’s family narrowly escaped from Frankfurt, Germany, before the Holocaust. When he visited Germany for the first time in 1995, a cousin drove Oppenheimer around Frankfurt and began pointing out the former locations of Gestapo offices.
“They were Kentucky Fried Chickens, banks, restaurants, handbag shops ... and I remember thinking to myself, everywhere that these things happened should be left empty, as monuments to what’s happened, not so much to punish the Germans, but so we as human beings would be forced to live with, and forever remember, the consequences of our actions.”
In “The Act of Killing,” these empty spaces are all filled with mixed emotions. The patio where Congo used to do his killings now sits above a women’s handbag store. The theater where Congo and his friends used to watch American films before their torture sessions is now eerily shuttered but still standing.
Oppenheimer said he remains worried about the indifference of Americans to our own role in the rise of men like Congo. Popular brands like Nike and Adidas have been cited by Oxfam International, an anti-poverty group, for using Indonesian sweatshop labor in the past. And Indonesia is by no means unique.
“Every article of clothing touching my body is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it for me. I’m wearing a $6 T-shirt from H&M that had a tag on it that said, “Made in Bangladesh,” which I cut off and threw away, wondering whether the person who made my T-shirt is now buried in rubble,” Oppenheimer said.
The danger, he said, is thinking that we are somehow above the Indonesians that appear in the film, that this is a world we could never tolerate or understand.
“Everything we buy comes from places like the Indonesia of ‘The Act of Killing.’ ... We depend on Anwar and his friends for our everyday living. ‘The Act of Killing’ is not a distant reality, but rather the underbelly of our own reality.”
“The Act of Killing” is playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.
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