What happens when two mass murderers are invited by a documentary filmmaker to reenact their most brutal crimes?
It seems like an almost impossible premise for a film, but that's exactly what happens in The Act of Killing, and the results are truly, deeply surprising.
Most people guilty of crimes on the scale of Anwar and Herman, the Indonesian subjects of The Act of Killing, are either dead, behind bars, or in hiding. They were death-squad leaders during the Indonesian revolution of the 1960s, and are responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands—some say millions—of “communists” (in reality, anyone who posed any threat at all to the regime taking power). But instead of being in hiding or in jail, these men are heroes in their home country.
Anwar (who looks uncannily like Nelson Mandela) and Herman are also film buffs, so when filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer invited them to re-create their acts of mass murder in familiar film genre styles, they jumped at the chance. The results—The Act of Killing documentary—are trippy and bizarre. It only vaguely resembles any film I’ve ever seen.
At first, watching scene after scene of Anwar and Herman gleefully explaining different killing techniques and making weird, garish, over-the-top film scenes out of their crimes/achievements is horrifying. But then the film grows repetitive and tiresome; I started to wonder what the point of it was. Is it to make us ogle at evil people being evil so that we can feel good about ourselves because we’re not like them? Is it to help us wonder how anyone can be like them? Admittedly, there’s satisfaction in being righteously indignant and comfortably horrified by someone else’s sins.
But just when I was about to check out of the film entirely, something changed on the screen. During one of the scenes, Anwar plays a victim. And it gets under his skin. He starts to understand the pain and anguish his victims must have felt in the final moments of their lives. (As strange as it seems, this seems to be the first time he’s considered that.) And his understanding grows until, in a harrowing scene where he returns to one of the sites of his slaughter, he is physically, violently sick while trying to talk about what he has done. That’s where The Act of Killing ends.
Our Capacity for Compassion
From where I sit, this is nothing less than the mysterious grace of God at work in this man’s life. Social psychologists have been telling us for a long time now that our capacity for empathy and compassion works like muscles—the more you use them, the bigger your capacity gets.
That’s not the way we think about those qualities, though, and it can be hard to make the paradigm shift. We talk about people with “big hearts” and people with “no hearts” as if they are born that way, ignoring the fact that a big heart can grow small through lack of use, and a small heart can be redeemed.
God never sees us as “stuck” the way we are; he is always calling us to become more like him, and there is no more compassionate act than the incarnation of his Son. All of us are either becoming more compassionate or less through the decisions we make every day.
The Act of Killing gives us as powerful a picture of this as I’ve ever seen. Anwar is a man whom most of us would consider heartless, perhaps even sub-human, yet through the bizarre stunts of an unorthodox filmmaker, compassion is awakened within him, and he repents.
The Invitation from God
I really wish The Act of Killing didn’t end where it does. The film dwells overly long on the two men laughing over the terrible things they’ve done and then cuts out just when things start to get interesting. I would love to know what happened next in the life of Anwar. Did he have the courage—and the support—to pursue this repentance that he’s felt? Will he do anything in his life to seek reconciliation with (or reparation for) the families of his victims? Are his gangster days really over, or will he retreat back into the comfortable life and the lies that justify the things that he’s done?
Even as it is, though, the film challenges me to examine my own life. This is what I, a middle-class American, have in common with an Indonesian gangster guilty of incredible genocide: God is inviting both of us to grow in empathy and compassion for the people around us. And so those questions about Anwar that I find so compelling also apply to my life. How will I respond to God’s invitation?
How will you?
Willie Krischke works at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, with Native American students. He has worked for InterVarsity since 2006. His wife, Megan, is an area director, and they have two kids, Flannery and Soren.
For more on growing in compassion, check out these resources: