After an unsuccessful coup in 1965, dubbed the 30 September movement, the military eventually overthrew Indonesia's President Sukarno in March 1967. Major General Suharto took control. After October 1965, first in Jakarta and then expanding throughout Java and into Bali, death squads massacred upwards of one million people. This documentary focuses on Anwar Congo and his friends, all deeply involved in the genocide.
Protracted, deeply disturbing stagings of massacres and individual killings dominate the film. Under the direction of the original killers, actors are cast to play the roles for a village destroyed and burned (the Kampung Kolam massacre). The effect of the reenactment is gut wrenching for the actors and all sensitive viewers. Meantime, various killers focus on their appearance, modeling themselves after John Wayne and American movie gangsters. In one surreal episode, a bizarre musical number takes over, another genre the killers loved.
Unrepentant and unpunished, these men continue to intimidate shop owners and local citizens, while being celebrated by their followers, as shown at a local rally. It's not surprising, then, that the credits read "Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous," the latter because one co-director, along with approximately 20 crew members who also listed themselves as anonymous, fear retaliation, so many death squad leaders still enjoy considerable power in Indonesia and, as we also see, still enjoy intimidating people.
With "The Act of Killing" running just over two hours, the inhumane ugliness and casual cruelty of the death merchants are horrendous to watch, including a demonstration of strangling with wire. This horrid chapter in Indonesian history is little known there or around the globe before this somber, sobering film. In English and in Indonesian with English subtitles, at a Landmark Theatre.