The Act of Killing

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his cohorts were promoted from small-time gangsters to big-time death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and so-called communists, in less than a year. Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organisation that grew out of the death squads. The organisation is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide, rape and torture. The Act of Killing is about these monsters who have won, and the sort of society they have built. Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan génocidaires, Anwar and his comrades have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries.

In The Act of Killing, Anwar and his cohorts tell us the story of the killings, but their idea of being in a film is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to star in the kind of films they most love from their days scalping tickets at the cinemas as gangsters. What is revealed is the harrowing vision of a banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number. But cracks appear. As the cohorts begin to dramatise Anwar’s own nightmares, the scenes begin to take over as artforms, leading to confrontations of memories of historical reality. Some realise that the killings were wrong. Others just worry about the consequence of the story on their public image. Younger members of the paramilitary movement argue that they should boast about the horror of the massacres, because their terrifying and threatening force is the basis of their power today. But can the horrific imagination succumb to moral catastrophe in this case? And if sociopaths are not reachable people anymore, the question becomes what we must do to stop them.