Most films screened at a festival, with an audience largely comprising journalists, filmmakers, film festival curators and film buffs, tend to be greeted with applause. After The Act of Killing was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, there was silence. We all trooped out, shaken, not because of what we had seen, but because of what we had felt.
We were thinking of the cruellest impulses that had ever passed through our minds, the ugliest things we had wanted to do and say, things we are scared to articulate because we know we will be judged for them. We as humans are capable of doing terrible, terrible things. We may feel shock, or feign shock, when we hear stories of torture and murder and cruelty, but a part of us pores over the grisly details, casting the perpetrators in the mould of the 'other', the inhuman being that we are not.
The Act of Killing does not allow us to do that. It throws us into scenes of intimacy with the perpetrators of one of the biggest genocides in human history - the "extermination" of Communists following the military takeover of Indonesia in 1965, which led to the overthrow of President Sukarno's government.
Under the regime, death squads were formed which were in charge of rounding up and killing anyone suspected of being a Communist. As the film shows us, the victims could simply be plantation workers who were part of a union. They could be ethnic Chinese, trying to make a living selling goods and vegetables. They could be journalists. They could be intellectuals.
And this is not a genocide that happened long ago. Its shadow lingers in Indonesia even today. It lingers in the communities of plantation workers who are afraid to form a union, because their parents and grandparents were killed for precisely that reason. It lingers in marketplaces, where paramilitary leaders extort money from trembling ethnic Chinese shopkeepers. It lingers in the fact that many of the relatives of the victims of the 1965-66 "extermination" are now foot soldiers of the paramilitary forces that wiped out their families. It lingers in the boasts of the Pemuda Pancasila - the dreaded civilian paramilitary force led by Yapto Soerjosoemarno. It lingers in a propaganda film that portrays Communists as cruel, amoral, hedonistic and degenerate, screened regularly for schoolchildren. It lingers in the fact that most of the film's crew remains anonymous.
It is difficult to describe The Act of Killing. It opens with a quite bizarre film shooting, with skimpily dressed extras dancing on a mountain, as an old man and a plump man in drag dance around them. We will find out that the old man is Anwar Congo, one of the most notorious death squad leaders from the 1965 killings, and the fat man is Herman Koto, a paramilitary leader who is also a member of the Pemuda Pancasila's home-grown theatre troupe. The film took ten years to shoot, and it is as much a journey for us as for its protagonists.
After a short note on the genocide of 1965, which was actively supported by Western governments, the film narrows its canvas. We don't hear anything else about the role of the Western governments. The film focuses, instead, on the local gangsters who were hired to kill the suspected Communists, and went on to become powerful leaders with political clout.
We see how the idea of a 'gangster' is glorified, we hear men talking about the thrill of raping adolescents, we see them discussing the public image of the Pemuda Pancasila, we watch as they play the roles of their former victims, we hear them in conversation with family members of the victims, we see them debate the ethics of what they have done, we see them trying to fall asleep.
However, the role of the West seeps in through the perspectives of the interviewees. Anwar Congo speaks of his obsession with Westerns. He sports cowboy costumes, suits and bowler hats, and attempts a ballroom-style dance with Herman-in-drag. An ideal movie, to him, must have a romance, songs, killings and gunfights, "like Hollywood". When the leaders of the Pemuda Pancasila speak to their squads, when politicians and army officials speak to the directors, when the likes of Anwar, and his fellow-exterminators Adi Zulkadry and Safit Pardede speak about their vocations, they all mention that the Indonesian word for gangster, 'preman', derives from the English 'freeman'. To emphasise this, the song 'Born Free' is included in the soundtrack of the film they make.
This is what happened in 1965 - local louts like Anwar and Adi, who made money selling movie tickets on the black market, were hired by the military to carry out regimented killings. They became part of one of the death squads, operating out of Medan in North Sumatra.
When Joshua Oppenheimer met them, they eagerly boasted about having single-handedly killed thousands of people, and the innovative methods they invented. Oppenheimer suggested that they re-enact the killings on camera, and this morphed into what the director calls "a documentary of the imagination". Anwar becomes the star of a surreal fantasy-film, which ends with a sequence in which a dead Communist awards him with a medal, to thank Anwar for killing him.
We meet Anwar, wearing bright Hawaiian-style clothes, speaking about what a good dancer he is, doing the cha-cha-cha on a rooftop which was the site of hundreds of killings he carried out in 1965. He explains how he would smash people's heads in, and how the terrace was slippery with blood. He then shows Oppenheimer how he came up with the idea of strangling people with wire, because it was so much cleaner. Viewing the footage, he frowns that he wasn't wearing the right clothes, and his acting wasn't intense enough.
As the film unfolds, we realise that this isn't the story of a regime that not been held accountable for terrible crimes against humanity. It is the story of a regime that is proud of its record of terrible crimes against humanity. At some point, it becomes a documentary of the mind, leading us to think about why the death squad leaders talk the way they do, why they need to boast, and what they are running away from in staging these elaborate re-enactments.
The documentary shows us both the scenes that were filmed, and the discussions that took place around the filming. We see one of the actors - also a member of the Pemuda Pancasila - speaking to Anwar, Herman and Ali about a story he heard, of a man who was killed and whose mutilated body was left in a dustbin. The actor then says, with an uncomfortable laugh, that the man was his stepfather. Anwar and his friends nod distractedly. When the actor plays the role of victim, he breaks down uncontrollably, crying real tears, mucus and saliva streaming down his nose and chin.
Oppenheimer said, in later interviews, that he had missed that sentence, about the actor's connection to a victim, because he was busy changing a tape in one of the cameras, and only heard it while editing. By the time, the actor had passed away (from natural causes). Oppenheimer told an interviewer that he suspects the man was not the actor's stepfather, but in fact his biological father. The director also said that if he had known, he might not have allowed the filming to go ahead.
Several parts of the documentary struck me as so unbelievable as to be almost out of a tasteless spoof.
For instance, a smiling television news anchor who works for a propagandist channel, speaks to Anwar about his heroism in killing the Communists. She giggles and laughs at his responses.
Later, Anwar speaks about how he and his friends used to watch Elvis Presley films and then go dancing across the streets to where their victims were bound up, and proceed to kill them. That account reminded me of the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs.
Four death squad leaders explain how they used to balance the leg of a bench on the neck of a victim, sit on the bench and rock themselves as they sang. One wants to throw up as they sing the same song for the cameras.
Safit, sitting with his friends, speaks about how pleasurable it is to rape adolescents. "Especially when you find those 14-year-old girls," he says, smacking his lips and they all sigh and make slurping sounds. "I would tell them, 'It's going to be hell for you, and heaven for me'", he reminisces, smiling.
In another scene, Anwar and his friend enact a scene where a Communist is being tortured. Using a teddy bear as a prop, his tormentor asks, "What is this, your baby? Are you trying to sell your baby to me?" "No, no!" the 'Communist' stammers. "Let me hold the baby," the tormentor says, pulling the teddy bear out of his grasp. He then says the baby is defective, with only one eye. He pierces out the other eye, and then proceeds to rip out the 'baby's' legs and finally tears out its guts.
When Yapto Soerjosoemarno visits some kind of grotesque museum display, featuring stuffed animals, he points at a tiger pouncing on a deer and says, dreamily, "Now, imagine if that were a man, and this were a woman..."
The former exterminators boast in the presence of their grandchildren about the things they have done to their victims. Usually, the children look unperturbed, even bored. In one strange sequence, Anwar insists on playing the victim of strangulation, but finds himself growing terrified. After two attempts, punctuated by breaks, he says he cannot do it again. While going through the footage, in what seems to be a desperate attempt at behaving normally, he wakes up his grandchildren and forces the sleepy boys to watch his 'acting'.
"See, see, how scared your grandfather looks!" he laughs, "This is all acting."
But, later, alone with Oppenheimer, he asks, "Josh, do you think my victims felt as bad as I did, when I was playing that character?"
After a pause, Oppenheimer replies, "Actually, they felt worse, because you knew this was just a film and it was acting, but they knew that was real."
Anwar looks genuinely surprised. Then, he mutters, "But, Josh, I felt it. I really felt it."
Earlier, soon after our acquaintance with him begins, we see him teaching his grandchildren to care for animals, mending the wing of a duckling. "Why did you break it?" he gently admonishes his grandson, who mutters, "I was scared, because it came near me", and Anwar says, "You shouldn't do that. See, it's hurt."
This is juxtaposed with elaborate accounts of his own killings, with the irony of it all never seeming to strike him.
Ali wanders through a mall, speaking detachedly of the killings he has committed, as his daughter clicks selfies and his wife shops. When Oppenheimer speaks to him in a car, asking about what he would do if the genocide were to be taken up in the International Court of Justice, he's dismissive, as if this were not about him at all.
The footage we see was shot over at least five years, and we see the characters change slowly - physically, emotionally and psychologically. Most of the members of the paramilitary force seem puzzled when, in enacting the torching of a village, the actors - mostly comprising women and children - genuinely break down. But Anwar is uncomfortable. He looks guilty. His smiles seem forced. We hear him panting on camera.
Towards the end of the film, he breaks down, welling up as he says that he does not want to remember what he did. He goes back to the rooftop where he carried out the strangulations, and this time, he gags repeatedly.
But, when the film ends, we don't feel a sense of closure. Instead, we feel a sense of unease. We walk away, not thinking about Indonesia, but thinking about the world and our place in it. Because what happened in Indonesia is only a microcosm of what is happening across the world. It is about a world in which any kind of power, seized through any kind of means, is glorified. It is about a world in which public opinion decides what is wrong and what is right. It is about a world in which a man who mends the wing of a baby bird can vivisect a human baby. And we could all be that man.