In 1988, Errol Morris released the film The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that melds film noir-ish reenactments of a crime and standard talking-head interviews. Specifically, Morris used dramatic reenactments to portray the slaying of a police officer, presenting the event from multiple angles as actors recreated a single night of crime. Notably, the filmed reenactments purposefully avoided direct presentation of faces—and therefore specific identities—with name badges, actions and narration acting as signifiers of the individuals instead.
In 2013, acting as executive producer, Errol Morris took part in a different film of historical reenactments: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a 2014 nominee for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and a work concerned with a different kind of murder—the apparently state-sanctioned mass killing of real and suspected communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. The most dramatic and effective tool in Oppenheimer’s film, however, is a brilliant, if profoundly disturbing, subversive twist on Morris’ Blue Linetechnique. At its core, The Act of Killingis a showcase of reenactments by, and at first ostensibly for, the perpetrators of years of brutal murders that took place in Northern Indonesia. Oppenheimer’s camera entices, involves, and highlights the roles of, the killers themselves, relying on their eager and often effusive participation in recreations of the historic murderers. No actor’s face is obfuscated in this film: the killers themselves play their roles, often proudly and with verve (at least at first). That [End Page 24]openness—their sense of depraved vanity—is what propels The Act of Killinginto a different category of historical re-creation.
Oppenheimer follows Anwar Congo for large swaths of the film. The aging, self-professed gangster—or, in his definition, “free man” —is known to have murdered at least 1,000 Indonesians between 1965 and 1966. Congo acts as instigator of the project, bringing together his former colleagues from inside and outside Indonesia to create a film that will, he believes, present a truthful retelling of their roles in the Indonesian purge of communism. Under Congo’s colleague’s leadership, the film takes on a visual air of surreality, interweaving standard interview sequences with snippets of the killers’ artistic vision during the film shoot—at times, featuring beautiful waterfalls, bizarre sets involving giant fish, and noir-ish interrogation rooms. At other times, however, Congo seems more interested in relishing the filmmaker’s ability to re-capture the proud history of his work than he is in refashioning his memories through any generic or fantastical milieu. As the film ends, Congo acts also as a figure of moral reckoning, one who, when confronted with a mediated set of memories, begins to finally grapple with his blood-soaked history.
The most notable and affecting moments of the film are the reenactments that combine both the perpetrators of the violent act (Congo and his friends) with civilian “volunteers,” onlookers, and the murderers’ own children. In a set-piece staged in the jungle, Congo, along with his friends and fellow militiamen, re-enact their rampage of pillaging and rape in a rural jungle village. Huts are burned, commanders bellow for more bloodshed, and women and children actors are manhandled, albeit only through “acting.” These moments are shot with a combination of documentary realism and the rapid editing common to Western action films, creating a moment that pulls the viewer outside of the normal narrative of the film. It is after this re-enactment that Oppenheimer brings the audience back to reality, and provides an important insight into the proceedings. While the soldiers relish the chance to relive their glory days, the women and children are shocked, horrified, and deeply rattled by their performance. For them, Oppenheimer seems to indicate, there is no thin line between the historical re-enactment and the original malicious deed. The tears of shell-shocked children attest to the fact that the violent deeds of the past remain visceral, immediate and reprehensible even when “acted,” and that Indonesia’s bloody history is present...