The English Department’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Committee hosted its annual interdisciplinary conference on May 2, 2019 at LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC). This year’s theme was “Body Politics.” The main co-organizers of this event, Dr. Meghan Fox and Dr. Anita Baksh, along with many more contributors helped in making this day a success. The […]
Imagine turning on the Jimmy Fallon show tonight, with special guest George Zimmerman, as he is introduced the audience goes wild with cheers, pride, and even a standing ovation. Sickening as it may be, during the first screening, at the Queens World Film Festival of Josh Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing we witness this very same glorification of a murderer. Anwar Congo, one of the founding fathers of the Pemuda Pancasila, sits on stage, with his head held up high, on a local Indonesian television show, and boasts about the murders he committed against alleged Communists. With this pride, this glory, we are engulfed into maybe the most challenging documentary that has ever graced the silver screen. Oppenheimer started to film this saga in 2003, originally intending for it to be for the victims and their families, but when he was met with resistance; Oppenheimer put his focus on the very people who made those families victims. Without any hesitation these men, led by Anwar, happily tell and reenact their stories.
It isn’t difficult to understand why Anwar chose to speak freely about what he did. His sense of pride made it easy for Oppenheimer to make this documentary – it made it simple to convince them to reenact their murders. Anwar’s love for American Cinema seems to be the driving force behind his desire to reenact these gruesome scenes from his life. Pair him up with longtime friend and fellow “gangster”, as they like to be called, Herman Koto and you have yourself a real life Timon & Pumbaa, but with a twist of murder. Together, these two gave this rare documentary a comedic feel at some points; Anwar with this joyful, childlike passion for the film he was making, and Herman the fat, foolish sidekick willing to do whatever it took to get a laugh, or attention. Unfortunately for them the content of The Act of Killing was nothing to laugh about.
Although the reenactments come across as a way for Anwar and the rest to glorify their actions, you quickly learn that it is also a way for Anwar to find acceptance in what he has done. Oppenheimer gives us shot after shot of the pain that Anwar feels internally. Some of this is apparent through the regret in his eyes, or when he reveals the nightmares he is having to Herman.
As the film nears its end we start to see Anwar shed that pride away and show this growth in him, similar to the way a snake sheds because of its new growth. Anwar’s pride is shaken, and the acts that he is reenacting no longer have the same meaning. His conscience wakes up and uncovers the guilt that he may have tucked away long ago.
Oppenheimer has captured something that many couldn’t imagine doing, and although we have some regret from his main character Anwar, Oppenheimer still manages to show you the truth behind the world of these acts. It is gruesome, it is ugly, and just because Anwar Congo has nightmares, doesn’t mean that others involved in the 1965 killings, aren’t fast asleep. After a screening at the Queens Festival last year Benny YP Siahaan, the Indonesian consul for information and cultural affairs was able to give insight from Indonesia’s point of view. He held a discussion with the audience members and answered questions. According to him, Indonesia has changed since Oppenheimer began his quest to make this film, and that much has “changed.” After it was all said and done, Siahaan said about The Act Of Killin” that “this film is another flavor of an ongoing debate in our country.”
Oppenheimer may not have walked away with that gold statue, but as Steven D’Castro put it “it’s so big that it doesn’t matter that it didn’t win the Oscars.” The sentiment seems to be the same across the board, Joshua did not get his Oscar, but he has made maybe one of the most transcending documentaries ever. Twenty years from now people will discuss what Oppenheimer did, forgetting that “20 Feet from Stardom” beat it out for an Oscar.
The Director’s cut of The Act of Killing will be screened at the 2016 Queens World Film Festival in March.