Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 9, 2012
“It’s like no other documentary I’ve ever seen,” said one friend. “There were several times where it broke me down to tears,” said another. Both were attending the last Telluride Film Festival and were talking about the same film: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn, and “Anonymous,” 2012). Oppenheimer is a young Dutch filmmaker who was stunned, back in 2004, to catch himself filming an Indonesian death squad leader as he demonstrated how he’d slaughtered some 10,500 alleged “communists” by a river in North Sumatra, only to top off that demonstration by asking for snapshots of himself alongside the filmmakers as he smiled and gave a gave a big thumbs up.
The Act of Killing is being championed by two titans in the field of both arthouse and documentary filmmaking: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Both are listed among six executive producers for the film.
Two months after Oppenheimer met the death squad leader in North Sumatra, the director saw the photographs of American soldiers smiling and giving a “thumbs up” while torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. In the press notes, the director writes the following:
A year later, Oppenheimer met a man by the name of Anwar Congo, an Indonesian death squad assassin who admits to killing hundreds of people with his own hands. Some of his assassin friends also allow themselves to be documented as they recount the respective horrors they inflicted on others. (There was no due process, no court system, once you were labelled “a communist” that was it: you could be wiped off the face of the planet.) In the eight years that would follow, Oppenheimer interviewed Anwar Congo, his friends, other death squad assassins, and leaders of Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement. Not surprisingly, the latter share a striking resemblance to the Nazi brown-shirts of yesteryear. But Oppenheimer adds some important distinctions:
At first, Oppenheimer filmed the survivors of these various atrocities only to find one obstacle after another. But when he turned the focus of the camera onto the killers the director found the exact opposite to be true:
At this point it’s important to remind readers that the Indonesian death squads murdered over one million so-called “communists” and intellectuals between 1965 and 1966 in the genocide of North Sumatra. As the production notes for The Act of Killing make clear, this massacre was not without a broader goal, one that involved Indonesia’s entrance into the global economy:
The filmmakers for The Act of Killing go on to do something rather extraordinary when they suggest that the assassins’ “love of cinema” clearly contributed to the serious crimes to come, starting with the young “movie theatre gangsters” control of the black market for movie ticket sales, and going on from there.
I have a hard time believing that either Marlon Brando or John Wayne could lead to the indiscriminate killings of over a million “communists,” but this conceit does provide a narrative arc that the filmmakers then use to show how so-called “lovers of cinema” could go from being shameless assassins, on one end, to later transforming into acquiescent “actors” who are shockingly eager to re-enact their crimes against humanity.
I am a “lover of cinema” who has witnessed far more adrenaline-tinged and manipulative horrors than can be dreamed of by the pathetic, evil, and immoral assassins brought into focus by The Act of Killing. Yet, somehow, I have never punched another person in anger in all my life (and this despite many reasons to do so). As such, I can’t help but have a few rather simple thoughts about the cretins witnessed here in this documentary. One: these killers are barbaric sub-humans who were not motivated by movies so much as they were motivated by money and greed. Two: they put one foot in front of another with an obvious psychopathic inhumanity and have a laundry list of delusions. I will not argue that chief among these is the delusion that they are “gangsters,” which they continually, vocally, and pathetically equate with as being synonymous with freedom. On at least four occasions we hear the assassins repeat the same claim that the word “gangster” comes from the phrase “free man.” Either different rules of etymology apply to Indonesia, or it’s transparently spurious and self-aggrandizing propaganda used to romanticize their lawlessness.
Most people go to the cinema to be transported into a different world, with different people and views and, as such, it is one of the most important art forms at our disposal that can facilitate empathy.
Psychopaths, however, don’t feel empathy. They take pleasure in torturing their victims and get off on the sense of power they gain from feeling as if they are in control over others. When psychopaths watch films they discard most of the unifying elements that the rest of us gravitate toward and, instead, they latch onto the images that appeal to their own extreme narcissism.
In The Act of Killing, the filmmakers give the killers an offer they can’t refuse when they offer to recreate the crimes to their specifications. Once again, these assassins are given a sense of control, but this time it is not over an innocent person’s life, but rather in the representation of how they killed those people. The killers not only write the scripts, they play themselves, and they play the victims.
With that, and no argument here, they do retreat into cinematic delusions that I can only describe as both chilling and surreal. One particular recreation shows a scene where the ghosts of the victims thank the killer for releasing them from earthly pain while the song “Born Free” plays on the soundtrack. The killer wears a dress. The scene is otherwise bucolic, with a waterfall in the background and impossibly green grass stretching out in all directions. This has nothing to do with Marlon Brando or John Wayne. These men are psychotic. (I originally used the word “insane,” a mistake on my part that was brought to attention thanks to the comments below.) They made a lot of money killing innocent people. They are alive. Their victims are long dead, and surviving family members of the dead continue to live in fear.
There are words to capture how disturbing this all is, but I am not fit for the task. Maybe someday. But not now.
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