The Act of Killing opens with a Voltaire quote; “It is forbidden to kill – therefore all murders are punished.” This pseudo documentary style film focuses on a group of ageing ‘Relax and Rolex’ gangsters. They were paid by the Indonesian government, in the aftermath of failed military coup in 1965, to kill an estimated 500,000 people suspected of being communists. However, none of them have ever been punished in any way apart from in their own bad dreams.
This is tale that needed telling but it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. Grim truths are interlaced with almost comical and surreal images. For example we see dancers in neon pink costumes emerging from the mouth of a large fish in the tropically verdant countryside of Indonesia directed by a huge transgender gangster dressed as a woman. But the next minute we are being given a demonstration of how to avoid too much blood when killing a room full of people. Anwar Congo, an aged gangster turned para-military leader conducts a mock garrotting with a homemade wire device. He is thought to have personally garrotted around 1,000 people.
These state sponsored killers repeatedly say the meaning of ‘gangster’ is ‘free men’ who enjoy doing things in their own style. They are now old men who show no remorse. They seem to relish the opportunity when asked by the filmmakers to re-enact this vile and violent period of their lives by making a film about how they got rid of these so-called communists.
The film shows that even today these ‘gangsters’ are both feared and revered. Many are now prospering in public roles and positions in government. While the Indonesian population would appear to be in denial that all this unwarranted carnage happened. More frighteningly a current senior politician and leader of the youth movement is quoted saying ‘this nation needs free men – we need gangsters to get things done.’
The gangsters self-justifications finally start to crumble as they act out vignettes demonstrating their crimes. The film makers cleverly get them to play the part of their victims. As the past is brought to life, they are shown reviewing their performance with their families and grandchildren around them. Chillingly only then do they acknowledge that maybe their victims did not deserve their fate and some, but in my book definitely not enough, tears are shed.
The Act of Killing is being screened on Sky Atlantic as part of the Sky Atlantic Documentary Films Series