Think of the mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, North Korea, the former Yugoslavia, and Germany during the Hitler years. When confronting these acts of incredible violence, the mind crumbles and the heart is perplexed. In the twentieth century, bloodthirsty citizens, soldiers, and paramilitary troops set in motion the mass murder of more than 100 million people. The slaughter of men, women, and children was framed as a political act and justified on the grounds that the enemies were subhuman, vermin, and a dangerous threat to the community.
The Act of Killing is a gripping and at the same time bizarre documentary about those who joined with the soldiers of Indonesia in 1965 and killed more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than one year. The director Joshua Oppenheimer was shocked when he discovered that the death squad leaders were heroes in the eyes of the media and the government. In the spirit of George Orwell's 1984, they promoted themselves as gangsters — modeling themselves after the ones they'd seen in Hollywood movies — and defined that term as meaning "free men." One senior minister says "we need gangsters to get things done."
Anwar Congo and his friends, all former members of the paramilitary organization, are not adverse to acting out how they killed communists by wire strangulation. Taking great pride in having helped get rid of these traitors, they even create fictional sequences as a means of telling their stories. But Anwar admits to being "haunted" by his actions and having to numb himself with booze, marijuana, and the drug Ecstasy. Others evidence no regret for the murders they committed.
As we watched the harrowing events in The Act of Killing we could not help but keep coming back to the death squad members and their love of Hollywood gangster movies. Americans are addicted to violence and over the past ten years we have seen evidence of this in the pre-emptive military strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; with the selling of hatred by talk-radio show hosts; with the elevation of Quentin Tarentino's blood-drenched movies to Academy Award status; with the Facebook statement of a police officer who described his job as "human waste disposal"; with the preachers, teachers, and airline pilots wanting to have guns in churches, schools, and cockpits; and with the orchestrated killing in vile video games for youth.
Americans sell the pornography of violence and hence play a part in the genocides happening around the world. This ongoing assault on humanity can only be eradicated with the spiritual practices of love, compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, openness, reverence, and transformation. It will take the combined efforts of all believers from all the world's religions and the zeal of spiritual seekers of all stripes to put an end to the mass murders and the hatred that sparks them. Hats off to Joshua Oppenheimer for this wake-up call about how the worship of violence leads to crimes against humanity.
Special features on the DVD include two versions of the film; a 45 min interview with Oppenheimer on democracy now!;aAudio commentary with executive producer Werner Herzog and director Joshua Oppenheimer; Vice presents: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris on The Act Of Killing; and deleted scenes.
Screened at the New Directors/New Films Festival 2013, Film Society of Lincoln Center