Some things have to be seen to be believed. The Act of Killing, a mind-boggling documentary by 38-year-old Joshua Oppenheimer, will leave you reeling. Oppenheimer set out to make a straightforward documentary about the Indonesian mass murderers responsible for an astounding number of deaths in 1965, but encountered obstacles at every step. So he turned to the self-styled gangsters and offered them the chance to tell their own stories. The results are stunning and horrible and mesmerizing.
You'll see a grandfatherly type (he looks like Nelson Mandela) recreating his murders and showcasing his favorite techniques. You'll see a cross-dressing gangster stuffed into an evening gown à la Divine performing in a psychedelic musical number. What you'll see mostly is unrepentant assassins reminiscing about their crimes like old football players looking back at their glory days. What's more, you'll see the community around them celebrate the monsters.
It's a madhouse. A madhouse! And it doesn't get sane, it doesn't find moral clarity. It stays firmly, defiantly, right smack in the middle of Main Street in Crazy Town.
There are many grimly funny moments in The Act of Killing, but make no mistake, this is a horror film where not only does evil go unpunished, it is celebrated. The gangsters, who pattern themselves after Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, are hot properties on the talk show circuit. They get approached in malls by people sensing a once in a lifetime photo op.
Remember, these men killed thousands of human beings. Estimates of the slaughter run as high as 2.5 million. They killed savagely. Casually. In some cases, they cut off their victims' heads. And here they are, decades later, enjoying the attention of their public as they recruit locals to act out the roles of victims in their obscene recreations. "History is written by the winners," says one of the gangsters, "And we are the winners."
Maybe my moral outrage is misplaced. It astounds me - and deeply offends me - to see such atrocities treated with brazen indifference - hell, with pride! But is it any worse than the way Americans of European descent manage the memories of how their ancestors dealt with Native Americans or captive Africans? Our kinfolk destroyed one culture and made slaves of members of the other. Most of us simply don't address those acts now - we didn't do it, it was our ancestors! - while a smaller group still celebrates the barbarism.
I guess the brazen behavior of the Indonesians shouldn't shock me all that much, but I was rattled nonetheless. As the grandfatherly Anwar Castro asserts, the word gangster means "free man." I dunno. During an appearance on a TV news talk show, the host recounts the deadly exploits of her guests and offers an estimate of their body count. The impressed audience applauds. Ladies and gentlemen, you have got to see The Act of Killing to believe it. Maybe you'll get on your moral high horse like I did. Maybe you'll find the honesty refreshing. One thing's for sure. You won't see another documentary like this one.