Joshua Oppenheimer’s startling documentary The Act of Killing has attracted praise and controversy alike. The Independent’s reviewer called it ‘without question one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen.’ The reason is not hard to see. The documentary features real mass murderers re-enacting their crimes for the camera. That The Act of Killing is neither voyeuristic nor sensationalist is a testament to the thoughtfulness that Oppenheimer has brought to the making of this remarkable film.
Film Making as Psychoanalysis
Over the production period, which stretched to almost a decade, the mainly Indonesian film crew were required to exercise remarkable restraint, day after day, as they heard mass murderers brag about their acts of torture and killing. The co-producer, who, like many of the crew, has chosen to remain anonymous for his own safety, is quoted in the New York Times review as saying “The most difficult part was to keep your feelings to yourself. You feel annoyed, angry. How could these people tell these horrible stories so lightly and so proudly? You just want to challenge them right away. But you have to keep telling yourself to be patient, to let them tell the story the way they like. Because then we can learn something about the whole system of destruction.”
Oppenheimer’s film shows us that psychopaths are largely responsible for the whole system of destruction. It also demonstrates just how terrifyingly well suited for mass slaughter the minds of psychopaths are.
The Historical Background
The mass murders that are the subject of “The Act of Killing” took place in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, against the backdrop of a power struggle between then President Sukarno and General Suharto. In 1965, Suharto seized on an apparent coup attempt to launch a campaign of extermination against alleged communists. In reality, the murder campaign targeted anyone who was seen as an opponent of the government, including union activists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese. One million people are thought to have been systematically murdered within a period of twelve months. Suharto then used the violence as a pretext for eroding President Sukarno’s powers and installing himself as President. Organised mass killings occurred all over Indonesia, with the Indonesian Army recruiting local gangsters to carry out the murders. It is gangsters in the city of Medan, in northern Sumatra, that are to focus of Oppenheimer’s film. To this day the perpetrators have never been tried, and as the film damningly portrays, many of those responsible remain in power, intimidating the victims’ families into silence still.
How the Film Came to be Made
In the New York Times review Oppenheimer explains how the idea of getting the killers to re-enact their crimes came about. “Within minutes of meeting me, they would tell me horrible stories, often boastfully, and would say, ‘How about if we go to the place where I killed people, and I will show you how I did it? And then they would often lament afterwards, ‘Oh I should have brought a machete along to use as a prop,’ or ‘I should have brought friends along who could play victims, it would have been more cool that way.’” Their pride in their slaughter, and their enthusiasm to show in detail how they had killed thousands, led to Oppenheimer filming the killers re-stage their crimes on camera.
Throughout the documentary, they tell stories about how their victims would plea for their lives, how strangulation with piano wire became the preferred means of murder, and about how they were put their victims bodies in sacks and dumped them in the river. These stories are all told dispassionately, as the Slate review recounts, as though the killers were ‘describing a family picnic.’ One of the murderers, Anwar Congo, tells how he would dance across from the cinema after watching Elvis movies, to the office where he ‘happily’ killed hundreds. Adi Zulkadry, another mass murderer featured in the film, describes how during the ‘Crush the Chinese’ campaign he walked the streets, stabbing to death every Chinese person he came across – including, he recalls laughing, the father of his Chinese girlfriend. Another of the killers recounts how, in they good old days ‘when we were the law’, he would rape women freely. His fondest memories, he tells us, are of the young girls he would rape – 14 was his preferred age – telling them, ‘This will be hell for you, but heaven for me.’
A Different Type of Human Being
It is possible to interpret The Act of Killing in one of two ways. One can see the perpetrators as ordinary people, and view the film as a chilling examination of how we can all become unrepentant murderers. That is, we can choose to see Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and their fellow killers as people just like us, who have somehow happened to turn bad.
Or we can believe what the killers tell us. And what they tell us in frame after frame is that they can kill easily, without remorse. That they can ‘kill happily’ as Congo said; dancing and humming Elvis songs as they torture and murder their victims, night after night, with no regrets.
To my mind the conclusion is inescapable. The men re-enacting their crimes in The Act of Killing are psychopaths. They are not like you or I. They suffer from psychopathy – an emotional and cognitive disorder that sets them apart from the rest of humanity.
Psychopathic behaviour is evident in every frame of Oppenheimer’s film, but there are moments in which clear signs of the cognitive and emotional deficits that are unique to psychopaths scream out from the screen.
One such moment is when Anwar Congo is watching the playback of a torture scene in which he plays one of the his own victims. In what appears to be a moment of awakening, Congo suddenly asks ‘Did the people I tortured feel like I do here?’ Oppenheimer responds, ‘Actually the people you tortured felt much worse. You were only in a film. They knew they were going to die.’ In this moment we witness the psychopath’s utter inability to conceptualise the suffering he causes others; his utter inability to feel the horror and anguish that psychologically normal people feel. This total inability to conceptualise other people’s pain is at the core of psychopathy, and allows psychopaths to torture and kill human beings with as little emotion as you or I would experience when chopping wood.
Congo’s apparent moment of awakening was nothing of the sort. What we see instead is his psychopathic mind grasping at what it might feel like for his victims, but failing completely.
A second moment in which Oppenheimer gives us a startling insight into the psychopathic mind occurs in the closing scene. Psychopaths not only suffer from a chilling inability to recognise the suffering they caused others; they also often believe that their victims are grateful to them. Psychologist Robert Hare, for example, recounts the case of a serial rapist who believed that his victims would be grateful to him, because he helped them get their names in the newspapers.’ This cognitive disfunction is a symptom of psychopathy, and we see it enacted in a breathtaking manner in the film’s final scene.
The closing sequence, which is completely designed by Anwar Congo, features Congo standing by a beautiful waterfall, surrounded by female dancers gyrating to the song Born Free. Two men, representing Congo’s victims, take piano wire from around their necks. Then one of Congo’s victims gratefully places a medal around his killer’s neck, saying, “For executing me and sending me to heaven, I thank you a thousand times.”
Parasites on Humanity
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer has captured on film conclusive proof that another type of human being lives among us – a type of human being that is responsible for most of the violence that scars our world.
We are not all the same. The distorted minds of psychopaths enable them to kill without remorse. And psychopaths are not rare. As Anwar Congo says in the film ‘There are people like me everywhere in the world’. Our blindness to this basic scientific fact allows psychopaths to continue to bring death and suffering to millions of innocent people, while they live comfortably – parasites on societies everywhere.
The true value of The Act of Killing is that it might help the rest of us to waken up to that unsettling fact.
 Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, The Guilford Press, London, 1993:43