The images and scenes we discuss below are not those of a conventional film plot. Nevertheless, *spoiler warning*.
It’s hard to know how to write about The Act Of Killing, the unsettling, surreal, humanising, nauseating portrait of an Indonesian death squad that is generating such interest. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and the mainly anonymous Indonesian crew (anonymous for fear of retribution) have conjured something quite extraordinary into the world. Laced with caustic insights into atrocity, empathy, memory, commodification, artifice, power, solidarity, fear, self-deception and play.
One million people were killed in Indonesia in the mid-60s following a military coup. The massacres which aimed at obliterating “communists” (along with ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) have been largely undocumented, with many of the perpetrators occupying prominent positions in the Indonesian government. Without wishing to give too much away or to channel and pre-empt the multiple, contradictory emotions that it is bound to elicit, the main conceit is a film within a film where the murderers re-enact their murders, all the while debating whether to recreate this method, or whether that victim would have cried out in that way, and sometimes whether they might just be showing us too much truth in their performances of the past. At one point there is the satisfied declaration that these scenes of re-articulated horror will be seen as far away as London! Part voyeurs, part students, we are thus implicated in their narratives, viscerally. Aghast, covering our eyes, retching when they retch, laughing guiltily at moments of shared humanity.
The Act Of Killing is a deliberate move from the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ to the ‘theatre of the oppressor’, a move that is challenging not simply because we – those ostensibly passive spectators – are made to face deeply uncomfortable ‘truths’ but also because it is above all a movie that painstakingly documents what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, called the ‘banality of evil’. Whilst there is nothing anodyne or sanitised about these gruesome renactments, they are almost flippantly juxtaposed with the mundane rituals, pedestrian encounters, and even moments of compassion and kindness that make these men all too human. The result is an audience suspended between empathy and disgust, between acceptance and incredulity, and between the absurd and the quotidian.
The Act Of Killing, for us at least, is a gut-twisting manifestation of sometimes nebulous socio-political insights. Insights such as Agamben’s ‘camp’ or Foucauldian ‘state racism’: concepts that suddenly unfold themselves before us on film, embedded as they are in a context otherwise deeply unfamiliar to us. But although seemingly focused, somewhat narrowly, on Medan, Indonesia the ambit of The Act is far greater: it offers a compelling commentary on the connate imbrication of capitalism, commodification, legality, sexual discrimination, racism, and their inescapably violent manifestations. It is less a document-ary about Indonesian history than a meditation on violence, memory and subjectivity themselves, a provocation made universal precisely because of its lingering gaze on these few aged torturers.
Although others enter at points, sometimes as major points of rupture and revelation, The Act Of Killing spends the great bulk of its running time with three figures. Most prominently there is Anwar Congo, an infamous death squad commander well-known around town (although we hear at least once that he may not have been quite as prominent as he claims). Then Adi Zulkadry, who boasts of killing his girlfriend’s father in the street because he was Chinese, and who remains a well-connected to political and economic elites. And finally Herman Koto, the light relief, thespian talent and failed political candidate, who regularly (and inexplicably) takes on the role of woman/drag-queen in the various re-enacted scenes.
All three are associated with Pancasila Youth, a hybrid paramilitary/preman (gangster) organisation with a membership in the millions. Other Pancasila members, including its leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno as well as current government ministers, support the various reconstructions, at one point participating in the burning of a village to mirror the strategies of 1965. A near-emetic scene in itself. Anwar, who Oppenheimer discovered having already interviewed several dozen other preman, is our protagonist/antagonist (might we even say the pro-agonist?). He compels both because he seems proudest of his actions, dancing and showing off as he explains in meticulous detail the microphysics of his atrocity process, and because as we progress with him through the reconstructions, he becomes increasingly haunted, the once-willing performances peeling back his delusions and self-justifications. He re-enacts his own night terrors, and eventually bares himself to Oppenheimer, pushing at him, and at us, because he knows and he feels the pain of those he killed in the act of recreating their deaths. The film unravels in the last ten minutes with an unforeseen fervour. The climax is more than cathartic, it is positively purgative, with Anwar experiencing an abreaction as physiological as it is emotional and that continues to reverberate long after the scene ends.
But it is Adi who is perhaps more compelling. Although he is, for us at least, undoubtedly less troubled by the past than Anwar, he is also less inclined to apologism and aggrandising narrative. When Anwar recollects an old propaganda film about Communists that gave him strength in killing, Adi insists on revealing it as fiction. We were the worst. If anyone is the psychopath of the piece, it is Adi, and for just that reason he is also its centre of truth and its (a)moral compass. When he leaves the film, it is not because of the unwelcome reminder of massacres he commanded, but because of the political trouble he suspects it will stir into life. And on this, as on the causes of the coup-massacre, he is clear-sighted. There is no remorse, but also no dissimulation.
Adi and Anwar are thus our poles. We have no prostrate confessor, no preman-on-trial (the impunity is too great for that), to resolve the arc of justice. Just these two modes: on the one hand, the infamous killer, oscillating between delusional pride and remorse-angst. On the other, the calculating perpetrator, calm in the reality of what he did, alive in the present, unapologetic and calculating still. And maybe a recessive third: the not-too-bright pitifulness of Herman, who just wants to be play along with the big boys.
And so the effect on the audience, as with Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, the opposite of the coddling tales of Kony 2012 and its ilk. Not necessarily because The Act Of Killing forces us to face our own complicity, or provides any such politically neat conclusion, but because the plot narratives we are accustomed to cannot be serviced, cannot accomodate the abrasions of watching Anwar et al. recreate scenes from 50 years ago. There is no appeal to eventual prosecution, or donation to this cause or that, or to another opportunity for the White Saviour Industrial Complex. Only historical memory of a sort. A long-form exposure to the discomforts of the torturer. A gap, a lingering gaze watching someone else retch at the memory of the horrors they carried out for minutes on end, and feeling pity and sadness for them, and not for their victims, who remain un-shown and un-named.
And for all that, there are some instructive traces, clues to be followed up in the wake of the viscera. As Oppenheimer recounts it, one instigation for the film was the desire of a death squad leader he had interviewed to have his picture taken by the scene of previous murders, to be seen, complete with victory signs and thumbs up. Just like those American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Visibility, representation, recognition, presence. And yet the distant perpetrators are not visible, or present. In the Q&A after we saw the film, Oppenheimer revealed that there were also interviews with two CIA agents who had been charged with providing the necessary support for the massacres. What would it mean for their recollections and re-enactments to be included? Integrating those testimonies would have rubbed against the ethos of The Act Of Killing, which thrives on not detailing the facts of every atrocity, every chain of events and chain of command. But those CIA agents are there nonetheless, reminders in their absence that ‘local’ violence in far places is sometimes not so indigenous after all.
And then there are the loops of memory and action, present throughout in Anwar’s recollection of time spent outside the local movie theatre, but rendered more explicit and unsettling in Oppenheimer’s backgrounder to the film:
To explore their love of movies, I screened for them scenes from their favorite films at the time of the killings – Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ and, ironically, ‘The Ten Commandments’ topped the list – recording their commentary and the memories these films elicited. Through this process, I came to realize why Anwar was continually bringing up these old Hollywood films whenever I filmed re-enactments with them: he and his fellow movie theatre thugs were inspired by them at the time of the killings, and had even borrowed their methods of murder from the movies. This was such an outlandish and disturbing idea that I in fact had to hear it several times before I realized quite what Anwar and his friends were saying.
He described how he got the idea of strangling people with wire from watching gangster movies. In a late-night interview in front of his former cinema, Anwar explained how different film genres would lead him to approach killing in different ways. The most disturbing example was how, after watching a “happy film like an Elvis Presley musical”, Anwar would “kill in a happy way”.
Something’s going on here, and it’s not the one-dimensional observation that violent movies inspire violent acts.
And then, although the question of crimes against humanity comes up only once in the film (and is batted aside by Adi with the observation that the victors make the rules as they go along, and as a victor he necessarily gets carte blanche), there is a question of legacy, and after-shock. National memory, as the below interview with Oppenheimer suggests, is consciously and continually policed. At one point in The Act Of Killing, we see it joyfully manipulated anew, as the perpetrators appear on a daytime chat show where their genocidal violence is not only openly discussed, but celebrated.
The scale and character of the 1965 massacres seems to have had all the hallmarks of an open secret in Indonesia, but the telling of the secret, by the perpetrators, has nevertheless stimulated some discussions and investigations, as well as some retributions. Underground showings are underway, in the face of real risks. It is hard to believe that there will be a satisfyingly just resolution, but here, as for Anwar and his preman, there are possibilities in the act of a past re-presented.