Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Act of Killing ~ Documentary Film Review

by: Uel Ceballos

Brave and emotionally ruthless, the documentary film “The Act of Killing” exhibited an event from the past that is still too much for the involved individuals to handle even up to now. The film is focused on the Indonesians killings of 1965 – 1966, an anti communist purge wherein million or more suspected communists and Chinese Indonesians were killed. The film featured Anwar Congo and his friends who lead the death squad in the 1965, from being gangsters selling black market movie theatre tickets to notorious executioners. Anwar is now the honoured and respected founding father of right wing paramilitary group Pacansila Youth which supported Suharto’s New Order military dictatorship. This is the group that is accountable for the mass killings in 1965 in support for Suharto’s military coup. 

In “The Act of Killing”, Anwar Congo is challenged to re-enact the killings, including the details on how it is performed. Anwar willingly accepted the challenge and reminisced the bloody past of his country, wherein Anwar himself has personally executed 1,000 individuals by wire-strangling. 

The film showed Anwar and his friends re-enacting the major interrogation and killing scenes they have done in the past. The entire film consisted of Anwar interviews, following him to places where he used to perform the execution, and documenting his conversations with his colleagues wherein at some point they are discussing about how the killings have affected them through the years. Series of re-enactments are done through their favourite genres such as gangster and musical films. Anwar has even mentioned that his killing process was based from the gangster movies he has watched back then. 

“The Act of Killing” is hard and agonizing to watch. It leaves out the dramatic and over-the-top treatments; but by just simply watching Ango and his friends gave their narration account of the killings, everything in the film is already shadowed by that horrible shade of the event. No heavy melodramatic treatment is ever needed to make you grasp the sensitivity of the issue presented on this docu-film. They laughed as they recounted that things they have done, as if these were just some funny, crazy stuff they have remembered back in their youth. They openly take pride on their works, boast of corruption rigging which serve today as the basis of Pancasila Youth’s power. 

However, I’m not quite sure what would be the effect now to the people who see this docu film, with regard to their perception of the Pancasila Youth Group. An unexpected turn of event has happened with Ango, as he personally re-enacted the killing. He acted as the victim instead of being the executioner. The surge of emotions within him is quite out of the blue; that after all those years despite the regular nightmares he keep on struggling with, this is the major moment that he gets to recognize his true feelings about what he did years ago. 

Ango Congo and the rest of his colleagues hid nothing and kept nothing here. They answered what are being asked of them. They gave the details and make a clear description of things. This documentary film didn’t expose some  secret or truth because nothing is really hidden or denied after all; however, this issue is not deliberately discussed as well. The group is ostensibly proud of what they did from the past even before this docu-filming happened, they've been bragging about the horror of the historical killings that the group has performed way back. Threatening power is what keeping Pancansila Youth on its high position thus, the members especially the young ones won’t let any thing to mislead the perception of people to them. 

In here, you’ll witness how an inner transformation happen to an individual, of which is quite brutal and unforgiving, emotionally speaking. You know that kind of guilt from the past that eats you alive that you would wish to be off dead than breathing with lifelong pain. The documentary film is more of a narration from people who themselves did the execution; the effect of their narration is fairly vivid and powerful. My imagination has gone as far as seeing the people through my mind’s eye, pleading and crying, all bruised and bathed with blood, taking their last breath. Much worse, is whenever Ango telling the details of killing with strong confirmation for its truthfulness. While watching him speak and do some minimal gestures to explain how he pull the string to tighten on the victim’s neck, I’m totally helpless to escape the painful spectacle; yes I can close my eyes but hearing his narration is all enough to project on my vision how dreadful and sinister those moments were. 

“The Act of Killing” is made with series of re-enactments which are done by Ango and his friends; they make use of music and lurid depictions, striking creativity with different schematic scenes. A successful attempt to deliver a significant, yet atrocious event from the past, which is now described in documentary film along with the effects it had to the people who became a part of it. It’s indeed a small wonder why “The Act of Killing” didn’t get the Academy’s Best Documentary Feature, where in fact it has all the reasons to bag the award. The film is too unbeaten to be not nominated for the category, and yet too sensitive to be favoured upon as the winner. 

For this documentary film that blatantly discuss the issue that have been skipped in most Indonesian history books, I’ll give it a rate of 10 Espresso Shots!