The Act of Killing

“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.

“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… unprecedented in the history of cinema.”
– Werner Herzog

“Like all great documentaries, The Act of Killing demands another way of looking at reality. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film.”
– Errol Morris

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:

The most unsettling thing about these images is not the violence they document, but rather what they suggest to us about how their participants wanted, in that moment, to be seen. And how they thought, in that moment, they would want to remember themselves. Moreover, performing, acting, and posing appear to be part of the procedures of humiliation.

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:

Unlike in Rwanda, South Africa or Germany, in Indonesia there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, no memorials for victims. Instead, ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honored as national heroes by a docile (and often terrified) public.

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:

…the killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank.

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:

One of the military’s main objectives in the killings was to destroy the anti-colonial labor movement that had existed until 1965, and to lure foreign investors with the promise of cheap, docile workers and abundant natural resources.

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.

For more info:

http://theactofkilling.com/

0 Response The Act of Killing
Posted By Gene : September 9, 2012 4:39 pm

Shadows of Salo and only too (sur)real.

Posted By Gene : September 9, 2012 4:39 pm

Shadows of Salo and only too (sur)real.

Posted By Ifan Ismail : September 9, 2012 10:00 pm

FYI: the Indonesian word for “gangster”, although not 100% synonymous, is “preman”. The closer English word I think would be “thug”. And, yes, it’s etymologically different. It derived from the Dutch word “vrijman”. Back in the colonial days, “vrijman” referred to “free men” who’s been released from cheap labor-contract or even slavery. Thus, with no employers and with freedom to make do for themselves, they started to become “freelancers”, mostly in grey areas that later the word became synonymous with street-level criminal activity.

So there you have it. A little etymology reference. But allow me to add a little history lesson.

Yes, this is an enormous ghost that is still haunting my society in Indonesia. On societal level, we’re quietly support this atrocities. The late New Order regime, which have been lasted for 32 years, based their legitimacy solely by eradicating communists in 1960s. Even then, there were already deep hatred and civil-war-ready situation between three fractions: nationalists, religious and the communists. Taking advantage of which overcame which, the military then make it their mission to cleanse the communists and the alleged communists, by doing it themselves, manipulating the mass, coercing them, or even receiving help from willing parties such as Anwar Congo and friends.

Since then, the official narrative is that communists are the main villain, and the military is the hero. The doctrine were ingrained very, very, VERY deeply that to this day, the society is still in neurosis stage. It can’t and won’t face the atrocities of the past, and instead, keep celebrating these psychopaths’ deeds.

Unlike Nazi Germany or even Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the perpetrator is the winner, and write their own history. Thus, Indonesia might be one of few places where a genocide of the past is still celebrated. Just imagine if the Nazis had won and still talking their glorious “final solution” on TVs. :(

Differing voices such as mine is not uncommon, though. But basically, we’re ignored on official and societal level. And I’m pretty sure the “obstacles” Oppenheimer faced during filming the victims are the classic ones: the victims (and its descendants) who are too afraid and traumatized to talk, official bullying, intimidation, etc.

Greetings from Indonesia.

Posted By Ifan Ismail : September 9, 2012 10:00 pm

FYI: the Indonesian word for “gangster”, although not 100% synonymous, is “preman”. The closer English word I think would be “thug”. And, yes, it’s etymologically different. It derived from the Dutch word “vrijman”. Back in the colonial days, “vrijman” referred to “free men” who’s been released from cheap labor-contract or even slavery. Thus, with no employers and with freedom to make do for themselves, they started to become “freelancers”, mostly in grey areas that later the word became synonymous with street-level criminal activity.

So there you have it. A little etymology reference. But allow me to add a little history lesson.

Yes, this is an enormous ghost that is still haunting my society in Indonesia. On societal level, we’re quietly support this atrocities. The late New Order regime, which have been lasted for 32 years, based their legitimacy solely by eradicating communists in 1960s. Even then, there were already deep hatred and civil-war-ready situation between three fractions: nationalists, religious and the communists. Taking advantage of which overcame which, the military then make it their mission to cleanse the communists and the alleged communists, by doing it themselves, manipulating the mass, coercing them, or even receiving help from willing parties such as Anwar Congo and friends.

Since then, the official narrative is that communists are the main villain, and the military is the hero. The doctrine were ingrained very, very, VERY deeply that to this day, the society is still in neurosis stage. It can’t and won’t face the atrocities of the past, and instead, keep celebrating these psychopaths’ deeds.

Unlike Nazi Germany or even Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the perpetrator is the winner, and write their own history. Thus, Indonesia might be one of few places where a genocide of the past is still celebrated. Just imagine if the Nazis had won and still talking their glorious “final solution” on TVs. :(

Differing voices such as mine is not uncommon, though. But basically, we’re ignored on official and societal level. And I’m pretty sure the “obstacles” Oppenheimer faced during filming the victims are the classic ones: the victims (and its descendants) who are too afraid and traumatized to talk, official bullying, intimidation, etc.

Greetings from Indonesia.

Posted By tdraicer : September 9, 2012 10:25 pm

I don’t believe these people killed because of the movies, but I also don’t believe you can shrug them all off as insane (though some may be). Since this is a movie blog, I’ll point to Spencer Tracy’s final summation in the film Judgement At Nuremberg: “If all the leaders of the Third Reich had been monsters and degraded perverts, than what happened here would have no more meaning than an earthquake, or any other natural disaster…” You don’t have to be a monster to do monstrous things-you just have to be convinced by the circles in which you move that those monstrous things are justified.

Posted By tdraicer : September 9, 2012 10:25 pm

I don’t believe these people killed because of the movies, but I also don’t believe you can shrug them all off as insane (though some may be). Since this is a movie blog, I’ll point to Spencer Tracy’s final summation in the film Judgement At Nuremberg: “If all the leaders of the Third Reich had been monsters and degraded perverts, than what happened here would have no more meaning than an earthquake, or any other natural disaster…” You don’t have to be a monster to do monstrous things-you just have to be convinced by the circles in which you move that those monstrous things are justified.

Posted By Joshua Oppenheimer : September 10, 2012 12:21 am

I too do not believe that Anwar and his friends killed because of movies. They merely borrowed methods from movies they watched. And Ånwar felt like he was acting while he killed — that made it easier for him to do the deed. (“I felt like a gangster who had just walked off the screen”, he says in one scene that didn’t make it into the film.

I also do not think they are insane. They were greedy, selfish, but that is not insane. Or it’s only insane insofar as our entire market economy is insane (based as it is on unfettered greed and selfishness, elevated to a virtue). And perhaps it is insane. But it’s normalized insanity – and insanity that I’m afraid we all share.

- Joshua Oppenheimer
Director, The Act of Killing

Posted By Joshua Oppenheimer : September 10, 2012 12:21 am

I too do not believe that Anwar and his friends killed because of movies. They merely borrowed methods from movies they watched. And Ånwar felt like he was acting while he killed — that made it easier for him to do the deed. (“I felt like a gangster who had just walked off the screen”, he says in one scene that didn’t make it into the film.

I also do not think they are insane. They were greedy, selfish, but that is not insane. Or it’s only insane insofar as our entire market economy is insane (based as it is on unfettered greed and selfishness, elevated to a virtue). And perhaps it is insane. But it’s normalized insanity – and insanity that I’m afraid we all share.

- Joshua Oppenheimer
Director, The Act of Killing

Posted By keelsetter : September 10, 2012 3:01 am

Re: Insanity. My mistake, and I should have known better. On July 29th I wrote about nothing but psychopaths and tried to be careful to avoid using the word “insane.” There is a meaningful distinction between insanity and psychopathology and it’s one worth correcting.

I find all the other points made within this thread equally valid, and appreciate clarification on the Indonesian etymology (and especially the lucid history lesson).

To bring this back to Joshua, a quick note. In rereading my piece it strikes me that in my rush to defend cinema lovers, it may have left readers with the impression that I was highly critical of THE ACT OF KILLING when, in fact, the doc struck me as one of the most powerful films I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. I’d also be very interested to bring it to the film series I program here in Colorado at such time as when it might be available for a calendar arthouse booking.

THE ACT OF KILLING is a singular achievement, one that haunts me still.

Posted By keelsetter : September 10, 2012 3:01 am

Re: Insanity. My mistake, and I should have known better. On July 29th I wrote about nothing but psychopaths and tried to be careful to avoid using the word “insane.” There is a meaningful distinction between insanity and psychopathology and it’s one worth correcting.

I find all the other points made within this thread equally valid, and appreciate clarification on the Indonesian etymology (and especially the lucid history lesson).

To bring this back to Joshua, a quick note. In rereading my piece it strikes me that in my rush to defend cinema lovers, it may have left readers with the impression that I was highly critical of THE ACT OF KILLING when, in fact, the doc struck me as one of the most powerful films I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. I’d also be very interested to bring it to the film series I program here in Colorado at such time as when it might be available for a calendar arthouse booking.

THE ACT OF KILLING is a singular achievement, one that haunts me still.

Posted By pk : September 16, 2012 10:27 am

“Shadings of potential pathology are found in everyone.” But apparently to higher degrees in CEOs and presidents:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/13/health/psychopathic-presidents-traits-time/index.html?hpt=hp_bn12

Posted By pk : September 16, 2012 10:27 am

“Shadings of potential pathology are found in everyone.” But apparently to higher degrees in CEOs and presidents:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/13/health/psychopathic-presidents-traits-time/index.html?hpt=hp_bn12

Posted By Dictator Suharto’s massacres of ‘communists’ | Dear Kitty. Some blog : October 27, 2012 8:33 am

[...] The Act of Killing (moviemorlocks.com) [...]

Posted By Dictator Suharto’s massacres of ‘communists’ | Dear Kitty. Some blog : October 27, 2012 8:33 am

[...] The Act of Killing (moviemorlocks.com) [...]

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