MFF 2013 DAY ELEVEN: The Act of Killing

10/6/2013

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The Act of Killing

Profoundly lauded, The Act of Killing is truly a curious chimera. Indonesia, if one is unfamiliar, can often feel like some chaotic fusion of North Korea and the Congo; a disorganized fascist regime. Public events and demonstrations are soullessly unimaginative propaganda pushes. Much attention is paid to the prevalent gangster mentality. A leading authority figure stands before a throng of orange-camouflaged young militants, members of the country’s paramilitary organization the Pancasila Youth, and says, “They say we’re gangsters. If we’re gangsters, I’m the biggest gangster of them all.” (this is not the first or last occasion where odious “gangster pride” takes public form). This Pancasila Youth, btw, is three million strong and, like a ghetto’s drug cartel, in many ways represents “the only game in town,” the growth industry. Over and over, the documentary features various figures celebrating this gangster mentality and proclaiming that the word gangster means “free man” – I have no idea if this is true and couldn’t care less. While watching the film I couldn’t help but notice that we never ran into any pockets of extreme wealth. Where are the super wealthy people? Surely there must be some, and surely they must be connected to the country’s power structures. This may feed into the other creeping feeling I had, that the country felt very much like a hick backwater. Put it this way: you’ll think twice about ever complaining about your First World Problems again.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer started out working on a documentary about survivors of CIA-backed General Suharto’s 1965 communist cleansing which resulted in an estimated 500,000 to 1.3 million deaths (many accounts conflict), but became extremely concerned when he noticed that his crew was consistently being arrested by the military and when every person they spoke to was shrouded in a veil of fear (often being genuinely watched, it would seem) – he compared the general atmosphere to what Germany would be like if the Nazi party was still in power. The focus of his documentary shifted to those men who has taken part in the mass killings between 1965-1966, still celebrated individuals, and finds his primary focus in a conflicted, highly complicated man named Anwar Congo. When simple interviews don’t quite expose the depths of his experiences, Oppenheimer got creative and asked Congo if he and his comrades would like to, perhaps, actually stage filmed recreations of their acts, to which they enthusiastically agreed, thrilled at any opportunity for celebrity and wholly blind to any potential of controversy – in Indonesia, you see, the film they end up making (the film within Oppenheimer’s doc) is enthusiastically reported by the press as a stirring historical account. At first Oppenheimer’s conceit troubled me a bit – but to hear him explain it, one begins to understand:

“What’s happening now, that these men are boasting like this? Why are they boasting? What’s the function of their boasting? It’s evidently a kind of threat to the rest of society (though not so much to me, I don’t think) to keep people afraid of them. At the same time, maybe it’s defensive, maybe they’re trying to convince themselves what they did was right. Because they’re clearly not psychopaths. Apart from when they were talking about the killings they were perfectly nice, welcoming people. They had families, children, grandchildren who seemed OK as well. And I started to ask questions of the imagination: how do these men imagine me? How do they imagine the way society sees them? How do the want the society to see them? How do they want the world to see them? And how do they ultimately see themselves?

In reacting to those questions, in response to those questions, I started to ask very openly (maybe after the 15th perpetrator I’d filmed – and Anwar was the 41st, so long before I met him): Look, you’ve participated in one of the largest killings in human history. Your whole society is based on it. Your lives are shaped by it. I want to understand what it means to you and to your society. You want to show me what you’ve done – so show me what you’ve done. In whatever way you want. I’ll film the process, I’ll film the reenactments, I’ll combine these things together and we’ll create a documentary, a kind of documentary, of the imagination.”

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Anwar takes us to the places where his killings occurred – he estimates somewhere around a thousand people by his hands (incredible), and all face-to-face – and notably demonstrates the most common method involving wrapping a wire around the victim’s throat, standing around ten feet away, and completing the act. Explained with pride and chuckles. Lest Anwar’s brutality dehumanize him to our eyes, he often appears a figure of some tragic scope. But as the film winds on and Anwar begins to film his tasteless nationalistic homages, and play in the scenes himself, for perhaps the first time he begins to develop some objectivity about his actions, consider the humanity of it, and becomes morose and ill. Anwar’s challenge becomes to present this history in a heroic fashion, ultimately challenging the unconscious he’s been ignoring for his entire life. What can I say about Anwar’s lackey? Actor Herman, dense as the day is long, perpetually dressed like a woefully tacky drag queen (he fills the film’s female roles, as per the habits of a paramilitary theater troupe he’d been part of), who endeavors into an ultimately failing parliamentary run. The two figures of absurdity become slightly more comprehensible when we understand that they very often – very often – compare themselves to gangsters from popular American films. Was it any coincidence that a major killing locale was across the street from a movie theater? “We watched so many sadistic movies. Tried to outdo them. Brando, Pacino, westerns of John Wayne.”

The killers offer an endless number of shocking quotations which rationalize or celebrate their behaviors. When trepidation is expressed about releasing their film to the public, one of the former killers states, “It’s not a problem for us, it’s a problem for history.” Wrap your head around that one. And “War crimes are defined by the winners,” an inarguable statement, perhaps, and prompted me to think, “Yeah – and we won.” But then he added, “Americans got away with killing the Indians.” Ouch. What was often very surprising to witness in the recreations was that for men attempting to make works of self-glorifying propaganda, no effort is made to appear self-righteous; these men, to any person’s eyes, are capricious monsters. A scene involving the burning down of a village, recreating an actual horrific event, gets so out of control that even Anwar can’t believe what he’s seeing. Some actors are shown in non-responsive states of shock. How exactly will this function as propaganda..? All ample evidence to demonstrate that it would take very little reflexivity to make these men come to terms with their actions.

written by David Ashley

Seen so far
Blow Out
Oh Boy
Something in the Air
A Hijacking
Sightseers
Paradise: Hope
Citizen Koch
After Tiller
Stories We Tell
Short Term 12
In the House
Post Tenebras Lux
The Act of Killing

Ranked
Post Tenebras Lux
Stories We Tell
Something in the Air
Blow Out
The Act of Killing
In the House
A Hijacking
Sightseers
Paradise: Hope
After Tiller
Oh Boy
Citizen Koch
Short Term 12

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