‘The Act of Killing’ help us understand the wickedness inside ourselves

A drawing of a scene from the movie "The Act of Killing."
(Megan Li • The Student Life)

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.

Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of Western governments, over one million “communists” were murdered. 

The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings.

These men have been in power — and have persecuted their opponents — ever since.

When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did.

To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever ways they wished.

This film follows that process, and documents its consequences.

The text is the introduction of the 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing,” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

The film was shot from 2005 to 2011 and mostly follows Anwar Congo, a black market movie ticket salesman and gangster-turned-killer. Congo himself is estimated to have killed hundreds of people during the 1965-1966 Indonesian genocide. Under the Geneva Conventions, his acts were war crimes, but he was never arrested and lived to be 78.

After watching “The Act of Killing” multiple times, it is difficult not to admit that I became somewhat attached to him. I found his character almost relatable, I found him funny at times and most of all, I found him human.

But it bothered me that I could come to sympathize with such a senseless killer. It made me think that perhaps Congo — the grandfather, the white-haired man who wore green silk shirts and white pants, the man who liked to smile and dance — was not filled with a special killing gene, that there was something other than chance which had pushed him and hundreds of other killers into committing unimaginable acts.

In “The Act of Killing,” many of the interviewed killers initially spoke proudly of what they did. Congo himself often fetishized his killings by comparing them to films: “Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see power and sadism! We can do that!” he said in the documentary. “We can make something even more sadistic than … more sadistic than what you see in movies about Nazis. Sure I can! Because there’s never been a movie where heads get chopped off except in fiction, but that’s different because I did it in real life!”

Despite the killers’ initial belief that their acts were right, Oppenheimer continued to interact with them to better understand why they did not question the morality of their crimes. The reenactments of their killings motivated them to profoundly revisit those same acts, causing Congo and other killers to reconsider what they had done: “Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won’t,” and “What I regret … honestly, I never expected it would look this awful.”

Very early into the production of their reenactments or “killing” film, the killers exposed their struggle between what the film gangster wanted to believe and what the real killer had done.

However, none of the characters and bystanders fully committed to remorse. Continually, they vibrated between pride and regret, because accepting their own sins would have led to terrible implications. “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse,” one gangster said. 

The men continued their anti-communist propaganda, they continued to align themselves with past beliefs and they never fully commited to admitting fault: “I know it was wrong, but I had to do it.” And, most importantly, they never touched clearly on what it was that made them kill.

Regarding Congo, I think it was his situation which pushed him. “We were gangsters. We didn’t have real jobs,” he explained. “So we’d do anything for money just to buy nice clothes. This was the cinema where I worked. I’d stand here scalping tickets and showing off. When films were popular, we’d scalp tickets. But when the communists were strong, they demanded a ban on American films. They wanted fewer American films. So we gangsters made less money.” 

Congo lived a depraved life. He was a poor person in a developing country who doted on the lives of movie characters. He did not have a real job and already drew his money in an immoral way. I can understand why he was looking for a way out.

Hating the communists was his way out. The ban of American films, films he loved and was dependent upon financially, was the domino which throttled Congo. Hate came easily to him. And when connected with the violent movies he watched, it makes sense that he would go on to create communist villains who could be flogged and slaughtered just as senselessly as the villains of the movies he admired. 

Watching the documentary made me realize how easily we can twist the threads of reality. Congo at times knew how bad his actions were. But he continued to escape through the lenses of mirages and lies. Even at the end of the documentary, after much reconsideration and regret, Congo’s’s “killing” film depicts the ghost of his victims donning him with a medal “for executing me and sending me to heaven. I thank you a thousand times, for everything.”

The story of Congo made me rethink myself. It has put to question if desperation can push us in search of villains, if it can convince us into being heroes ready to eliminate anything we see fit. We must be careful of thinking that we are different, that we are incapable of wickedness. Because we can all be pushed; we can all become lost like Congo: wanderers of our deepest of fantasies and worlds.

Patrick Hutecker HM ’24 likes to watch movies and read.

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