Spoiler alert, of sorts: Weak stomachs need not attend.
Here's the simplest way to explain this award-winning documentary: Anwar Congo, the very real and still living and celebrated father of the right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila in his native Indonesia, and a group of his aging friends were asked to make a film re-creating their experiences nearly 40 years ago as political gangsters. With the help of British filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, the men wrote, directed and produced a film. They danced their way through musical numbers, donned sharp suits for Brando-esque gangster interrogation scenes, and rode horseback in a pseudo-Western.
But the content of the film is no fairy tale. Congo and company were r-creating fictional versions of their very real ruthless mass murderers.
In the mid-'60s, Indonesia wasenmeshed in political turmoil. Congo and friends went from rudimentary gangsters selling black-market tickets to American movies to the leaders of a death squad that assisted in the killing of 500,000 accused communists in 1965 and '66. These men were given unimaginable and terrible power to rape, torture and execute anyone they pleased. Punishment for the acts was non-existent. The killings are often skipped over in history books, ignored on an international scale and presented as a victory over communism during the peak of the Cold War. Those who did the killing are treated as celebrities, granted political power and praised for cursing the communists.
Aftetr that horrible history lesson, we return to Congo—the main subject of the film, who himself killed an estimated 1,000 men using a piano wire as his weapon of choice—as a want-to-be filmmaker directing the gut wrenching reimagining which becomes more and more nightmarish as the film goes on. It is especially chilling to see Congo, a grandfatherly figure in a Hawaiian shirt, explaining how he would strangle men, as casually as if he were making a sandwich.
He and his accomplices eagerly re-create bloody scenes for cameras, adapting their favorite film genres to the grotesque stories of murders committed by their own hands—Congo at one point even admits, "it was like we were killing happily."
The resulting film is a struggle to watch, but provokes keen consideration and conversation about violence, culture, history, morality and narrative authority. Oppenheimer assists the men in the boastful historical remake, and his resulting documentary blends behind-the-scenes production footage with scenes from the fictional film until reality and reimagining become one single surreal and disturbing cocktail. The real stories and nightmarish fiction culminate in a horrifying montage of the men burning a village that is so uncomfortable to watch I had to stop watching for an "intensity break."
With a list of awards from International Film Festivals as long as an arm—and only expected to get longer—The Art of Killing is incredible, and what thought-provoking and disturbing documentaries are made of. A film that's searing images didn't leave my head for days after watching it. I'm glad that I've seen it, but I never want to watch it again.
The Act of Killing
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
Opens Friday, Aug. 30
Tin Pan Theater, 869 NW Tin Pan Alley