Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is one of eight 63rd Berlin International Film Festival winners screening at the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival. The recipient of the Panorama Audience Award and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlinale, this acclaimed documentary is a compelling morality tale.
The film covers the calamitous period in Indonesia's history when former president Suharto gained power in the aftermath of a much-debated coup in 1965. The Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, aka PKI) was blamed for the insurrection, and suspected members and sympathisers were rounded up, tortured and killed. Supported by the army and paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila, groups of young men (many of whom were gangsters) roamed the country, killing at will.
The exact figures may never be known, but it is believed between one million and three million people were murdered in just a few years.
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer turns his gaze to a small group of men who perpetrated the crimes in and around the city of Medan, in northeast Sumatra. Having learned that the killers, now in their 60s and 70s and living with impunity in the same communities in which they had carried out their heinous acts decades earlier, were more than happy to talk, he began interviewing them, even giving them space to re-enact their methods.
The film follows Anwar Congo, chief among the perpetrators, from whimsical showboating to the stark realisation that the acts he committed were worse than he originally thought. He comes across as complex and divisive, and the journey from self-styled gangster to a haunted, confused old man is both fascinating and painful to watch.
What finally emerges is a devastating portrait about power, weakness and guilt, and what it means to be human. But it is also a surrealistic nightmare of recreation and re-enactment, and a truly unique piece of cinema.
As viewers, we are encouraged to face our own prejudices and fears, and along the way understand the importance of empathy - no matter how bloody the crime.
The Act of Killing, Fri, 6pm, Mar 31, 9pm, HK Science Museum. Part of the HK International Film Festival