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The Act of Killing

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"We shoved wood in their anus until they died," Adi Zulkadry, a death squad leader, says later in the film as he is shown shopping in a mall in the capital Jakarta with his wife and daughter. "We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there's nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I've never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares."

In one scene a film crew member, his raw emotion broken by nervous laughter, says his family was on the receiving end of the terror.

" ... If you want a true story, I have one," the crew member volunteers. "Tell us," Congo responds, "because everything in this film should be true."

"Well, there was a grocery store owner," the man begins hesitantly. "He was the only Chinese person in the region. To be honest, he was my stepfather. But even though he was my stepfather, I lived with him since I was a baby. At 3 a.m., someone knocked on our door. They called my dad. Mom said, 'It's dangerous! Don't go out.' But he went out. We heard him shout, 'Help!' And then, silence. They took him away. We couldn't sleep until morning."

"How old were you?" he is asked.

"Eleven or 12," he answers. "I remember it well. And it's impossible to forget something like this. We found his corpse under an oil drum. The drum was cut in half and the body was under it, like this," he says as he doubles over a piece of paper to illustrate. "His head and feet were covered by sacks. But one foot poked out like this." The crew member raises one foot off the ground. "So the same morning, nobody dared help us," he says.

"We buried him like a goat next to the main road," he says with a forced smile as if the burial story should be amusing. "Just me and my grandfather, dragging the body, digging the grave. No one helped us. I was so young. Then, all the communist families were exiled. We were dumped in a shantytown at the edge of the jungle. That's why, to be honest, I've never been to school. I had to teach myself to read and write."

"Why should I hide this from you?" he says to the former death squad leaders, who listen with wry smiles. "This way, we can know each other better. Right? I promise I'm not trying to undermine what we've done. This isn't a criticism. It's only input for the film. I promise, I'm not criticizing you."

Congo and the other killers dismiss his story as inappropriate for the film because, as Herman Koto tells the crew member, "everything's already been planned."

"We can't include every story or the film will never end," another death squad veteran says.

"And your story is too complicated," Congo adds. "It would take days to shoot."

The killers in the film no longer wield the power that comes with indiscriminate terror, although they periodically wander through local markets to extort money from shopkeepers, a practice Oppenheimer captures on film.

When they carry out murder re-enactments, however, it triggers memories of a time when they were more than petty criminals, when they had license to do anything they wanted to anyone they chose in the name of the war against communism. 

"If they're pretty, I'd rape them all, especially back then when we were the law," one of the killers remembers. "f*ck 'em! f*ck the sh*t out of everyone I meet."

"Especially if you get one who's only 14 years old," he adds after he and some other death squad veterans pantomime molesting a girl and holding a knife to her throat. "Delicious! I'd say, it's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me."

There are moments, usually years after their crimes, when even the most savage killers have brief flashes of self-recognition, although they usually do not reflect upon or examine these revelations. They are often, however, haunted by specific moments of murder. Oppenheimer closes his film with a re-enactment scene where Congo begins by placidly describing the murders he committed at that spot and ends by retching and vomiting.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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Reminds me of the self-righteous young Marines run... by Jill Herendeen on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 12:08:07 PM
Chris Hedges makes me wonder if there's any hope f... by judith lawson on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 2:51:40 PM
Thank you for the excellent article and for puttin... by Daniel Vasey on Thursday, Sep 26, 2013 at 7:30:20 PM