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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Act of Killing


Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (2012)

Anwars Congo is a national hero in Indonesia. A celeb. Heís been well looked after over the last 40 or 50 years and heís looking good on it. Fit and dapper. His colourful shirts drape a slim, loose-limbed frame. He snaps in his false teeth and grins as he demonstrates to camera the best way to kill someone, twisting a wire around around a willing assistantís neck and pulling on it. Much less blood. Much more humane.

And Anwars Congo should know. In 1965 he was a gangster, a leading member of the death squads working for the Indonesian army that slaughered perhaps a million people, believing them to be communists, or not believing them to be communists but killing them anyway.

Apart from the money, Congo did it because he feared the communists were going to ban the Hollywood pictures he loved to watch, the music still singing in his head as he danced out of the cinema into the streets of Jakarta.

Heís still a happy sort. He sings and drinks, and smokes dope and drops an E. It helps with the nightmares he gets from what he did, even though it was the right thing, he had to do it and it made him a hero.

In The Act of Killing Congo and his pals get to tell their side of the story, dress up, put on the slap and act it all out once more through the tropes of Hollywood genre movies: musical dance numbers, gangster interrogation scenes, gory war flicks.

Kurt Vonnegut, when he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, said that to convey the true horror of the fire-bombing of Dresden he had to abandon realist narrative. J G Farrell's historical novels are told from the imperialistís point of view to subtly undermine their project.

In inviting the perpetrators to make their own film of their crimes, Joshua Oppenheimer is doing a bit of each. The result is surreal and also immensely powerful as the fictional portrayals of the atrocities spill out into reality.

Kids cast as the children of Ďcommunistsí whose village is being burned to the ground amid blood and screams continue sobbing, inexplicably to the film-makers, after the cameras have stopped rolling.

Congo plays one of his own victims, strapped to a chair while the wire is tightened around his neck. Suddenly he stiffens, paralysed with the horror.

He says he can feel what his victims felt. Surely you canít, replies a voice from behind the camera, you know youíre not going to die. But I can, he says, and for one utterly chilling moment you believe him.

Visiting a scene of the decapitations, above a handbag shop, Congo is gripped by nausea. He tries to throw up, get the poison, the guilt, the horror, the history out of his gut. But he canít.

And the gangsters and paramilitaries of Indonesia 1965 are still in power.

August 8, 2013

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