In the new documentary “The Act of Killing,” one of its subjects, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, says, “War crimes are defined by the winners.”
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s work focuses on an instance in which the war criminals won, placing the viewer in the company of psychopaths for two gape-mouthed hours.
In Indonesia in 1965, paramilitaries and gangsters were enlisted in a military coup. They tortured, strangled and beheaded more than a million alleged communists and other perceived troublemakers. The military and marauding youth force that rose in the genocide still hold power today. Their actions continue to be praised as heroic and used to intimidate the public.
Anwar Congo is a dapper man who sold movie tickets on the black market before he became his area’s head executioner. Oppenheimer asks him to recreate for the film scenes of his past murders with some friends and former colleagues. A movie lover who claims Hollywood as the inspiration for some of his killing methods, Congo happily obliges.
He and his friends set to producing their propaganda, throwing the genres of gangster, Western and musical into scenes with garish visual allure and substance that ricochets from the horrifying to the surreal, to the bafflingly absurd.
Away from the film within a film, Oppenheimer captures the range of perspectives the criminals have on the past, as well as a few haunting moments that glimpse its effects on the survivors of the genocide. The bigger picture that emerges is as pure and fascinating an illustration of the banality of evil as any I’ve ever seen.