The Act of Killing opens Friday

True to its advance notoriety, The Act of Killing features elderly mass murderers reenacting their crimes for the benefit of cameras.

Yet, I feel compelled to confess that it took me several days to get through the film, which I had the luxury of watching at home. The crimes, committed five decades ago in Indonesia, are horrifying in the telling, and the reenactments are often riveting. But I think what kept me from watching the film straight through in rapt fascination was that I found the constant company of narcissistic, self-justifying and dimly self-aware old men to be a bit exhausting.

But if that’s how I felt, it’s hard to imagine what director Joshua Oppenheimer and his team must feel after spending the years required to make a series of related films that culminated in The Act of Killing. There’s little question that this is a landmark in the annals of films that document human cruelty and suffering, and yet my questions are beginning to accumulate as I think about the film and how it was made.

Some background: In 1965, Indonesia’s left-leaning Sukarno government was taken over by the military, which then ordered a nationwide purge of suspected Communist sympathizers. Around 500,000 were killed, often at the hands of irregulars recruited for the purpose. In the region of North Sumatra, where The Act of Killing is set, the violence was carried out by a flashy gang known as the “movie theater gangsters,” so named for the ticket racket they ran and for their love of Hollywood, especially the macho stars who inspired their clothing, hair and attitudes.

Oppenheimer’s film focuses on Anwar Congo, an elegant, seemingly placid man who once was a gangster, which he tellingly defines as “free man.” He becomes our tour guide through the atrocities that he and his fellow gangsters committed in the name of anti-Communism and national stability. We meet some truly foul human beings along the way, including members of the Pancasila paramilitary organization as well as a newspaper editor who functioned as a Torquemada in his own office, typing up libelous copy about the poor unfortunates he was simultaneously condemning to horrible deaths.

The film’s notoriety comes from its use of “meta” tactics: having apparently unrepentant killers reenact their crimes for the camera, clearly relishing the attention and the opportunity to be the stars of their own movie. In staging these reenactments of strangulations, decapitations and beatings, Anwar and his fellow actors don elaborate prosthetic makeup (when playing victims) and exactingly selected, Hollywood-inspired costumes when playing interrogators. Not all of the staged footage borrows from Hollywood; there’s also an Asian-style music video complete with a giant goldfish, waterfall and dancing lovelies (who are about the only women in this film who escape belittling and debasement).

For all of this film’s radical blending of documentary and staged footage in the service of truth-seeking, there are still places where I sensed a lack of transparency on the part of the filmmaker. I’m always skeptical when two separate, vital characters conveniently meet each other and have conversations for the camera. In this case, Adi Zulkadry, a relatively well-groomed, well-spoken ex-thug who seems to have been prosperous in his post-atrocity life, flies in and becomes a key subject and unapologetic foil to the increasingly troubled Anwar.

There’s a long shot of Zulkadry driving through the city in which he offers a rebuke to Western moral hypocrisy when Oppenheimer asks him if he’s concerned about violating Geneva Conventions. Zulkadry reminds Oppenheimer that Western codes of human rights were produced after the fact by the winners, and that the winners are guilty of their own violations. He cites the atrocities committed in the U.S. against Native Americans and the mendacity of the Bush administrationpoints pleasing to liberals that Oppenheimer repeats in his public statements in support of his film. It’s all true, perhaps, but in the mouth of Zulkadry, it seems quite on the nose, as if Oppenheimer is keenly aware that as a Westerner bringing tales of lightly contextualized Asian barbarism back to his people, he runs the risk of being little different from the 19th-century chancers who flocked to Indonesia to extract its rubber.

The film also depicts children in several reenactments of violence. Worst is the pièce de résistance, the rape and pillaging of an entire small settlement: The unfortunate children in the scene are absolutely stricken with terror. Only once do we see Oppenheimer intervene when children are brought before his camera; ironically enough, it’s when he becomes concerned that Anwar’s grandchildren will be frightened by an obviously fake reenactment they’re viewing on the television.

But these concerns, and others, are far too complex to unpack in a short review of such an ambitious, unsettling film. These are questions to be discussed in film festival panels, college seminars, literary journals and opinion pages. It would be nice to someday hear from the disquietingly large number of Indonesian crew on this film who chose to credit themselves as “Anonymous.” And most important, the difficulties of The Act of Killing should be discussed by people leaving the theater after seeing this film, upsetting, perplexing, horrifying and enraging as it is.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The beasts within.”