Far from your typical Friday night flick, The Act of Killing revolves arounda an Indonesian anti-communist genocide that followed the country’s 1965 coup—more specifically, its playful reenactments by the gangsters (now celebrated as national heroes) who did the killing on behalf of the Indonesian government. These reenactments—drinking, singing, cowboy costumes and all—are, as Oppenheimer explained to us in the Q&A following the screening, the gangster’s opportunities to “tell their story in whatever way they wish.” The result, accumulated by Oppenheimer over five years spent in Indonesia, is a tale all its own: how we use storytelling and lies, in his words, “to escape from the most bitter, indigestible truths.”
The film offers little escape. In fact, “indigestible” seems like the most appropriate descriptor of the evening. The auditorium struggled to accommodate our bodies, let alone comply with fire codes—seats were filled and stairways sat five across. The director’s uncut version stretched on 240 minutes, 140 minutes longer than the wide-released documentary. Scene after scene featured a struggle to process both history and its reenactment.
Children can’t seem to stop crying after the gangster director yells “Cut!” One gangster dances where he once killed, and later almost vomits upon staging this same killing. Subtitles translate his Indonesian into, “bad dreams came from what I did—killing people that didn’t want to be killed.”
The film’s production, perhaps as much as the content itself, did little to help the audience settle into any sort of comfortable rhythm. Scene changes are startling. Quick cuts from intense action to silence mirror transitions from the killers’ action to reaction. Editing cuts the film mid-laugh, mid-music, mid-noise, mid-monkeys-eating-fake-blood. This fake blood permeates the film, leaving an uneasy tension between the truth of atrocity and its sadistic approximation. I could hardly imagine how the crowd for Saturday’s 9:30 a.m. screening would process the event alongside their morning coffee.
As the credits rolled, we struggled to break the silence with applause. Our sense of the expected was gone. We clung to some reassurance Oppenheimer had offered before pressing play, four hours earlier. He was explaining to the audience that it was okay to laugh— he’s found that Indonesians laugh the most out of any audience when viewing the documentary, but accordingly leave the most impacted. “The film is about how we commit evil,” he reminded us, “but it’s also about what it means to be human.”