The act of killing

I had to rip this from the film’s site, hence the arrows!

Joshua Oppenheimer (2012)

Today I watched the disturbing, compelling docu-nightmare The Act of Killing. This was one I had never heard of until my perusal of the Sight + Sound best films list (I slacked in my film reading in 2013). If asked what it’s about, I suppose I’d answer would be along the lines of ‘it’s about Indonesian death squads in the 1960s’, but that would fail massively to adequately describe this surreal horror show of a documentary.

Director (documentor?) Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed participants in the mass-killings of ‘communists’, ethnic Chinese and pretty much anyone the new military regime wasn’t enamoured with. These were men who killed hundreds of innocent people, in various ways, including beating, drowning, decapitating, running over with cars and apparently ‘forcing lumps of wood into their anus until they died’. Far from being ashamed of their vicious (and, let’s face is, demented) deeds in the mid-60s, they are proud. They are local celebrities, befriending gangsters (the word for ‘gangster’ being ‘preman’, which apparently comes from the English ‘free man’, a tenuous link used to justify all kinds of extra-legal activity).

Given that they were so happy to explain their acts, Oppenheimer asked if they would re-enact them. You know, to give him a better idea of their conquests of mortality. Not only did they agree, but thie somehow turned into them making a film that represented their actions, in various styles including gangster film, western and musical. Apparently gangster flicks influenced some of the deaths, such as strangling in the back of a car and dumping the body. Quite how musicals fit into this is beyond me, as is much of the film. One of these people said that, when it was the ‘destroy the Chinese’ phase, he walked down the street, stabbing all ethnic Chinese people he saw. Including his then-girlfriend’s dad.

At one point, someone involved in making this film tells the pensioner mass-murderers his story. When he was 11, a gang came for his stepfather. There was a scream, and then silence. His body was found the next morning, under a half oil drum. With the neighbours too frightened to get involved, this 11 year old and his grandfather had to carry the body away and bury it by the roadside. He gets increasingly angry as he tells this tale, quite understandably, but realises who he’s telling. He clarifies that he’s not against their project, but feels his story might add to the film. Unmoved, the gathered killer senescents merely tell him there’s not enough time for all stories.

The normality with which their tell their tales of wreaking mass death is disturbing. Children present for the re-enacted scenes clearly think what is happening is real, while a paramilitary leader tells one to stop crying: it is apparently embarrassing him, as Hollywood stars only cry for a moment. They sell their film on a national talk show, and even the host seems amused and proud at the idea of ‘exterminating all communists’ and any offspring who may be angry about their parents being executed. When one is asked how he’d feel standing trial for war crimes, he expresses his lack of respect for the Geneva Convention, and merely points the finger at the likes of George W Bush, who invaded countries based on the faulty pretext of weapons of mass destruction. While true, how this excuses the murder of over one million people in Indonesia, by Indonesians, is utterly beyond my comprehension.

My sister asked how I could watch this; the ‘oxygen of publicity’ philosophy. While I did and do agree with her, this is really something people need to know about. Not only as a (skewed) historical document of quite what went on – at one point, a killer talks about how the communists had been perceived as cruel, whereas it was actually his revolutionaries who were cruel – but because the principle exists now. In the drug wars of Mexico, in the religious battles in the Central African Republic, sectarian war all through the middle east. Ignoring the realities of what humans do to one another is foolish, and denying reality.

There is something of a story arc here. After playing a torture victim in one particularly intense scene, mass-murderer Anwar Congo remarked, seemingly heavy hearted, that he now knew what his victims felt. A voice off camera suggested that was untrue: he knew he was making a film. They knew they were going to die. This seemed to act as a moment of clarity for a man who spent the film mentioning in passing his feeling haunted by what he did. He talked of the time he beheaded a man with a machete, and failed to close his victim’s eyes. Those eyes just looked up, blankly, at him, and it is a memory that lingers vividly in his mind. Being showed the film he made ostensibly to glorify his actions seemed to undo him. He took Oppenheimer to the scene of many murders, and multiple times began violently dry-heaving as he tried to describe what he did. Finally, the horror of what he had done was articulated to him.

Sadly not so much the other characters, who either pretended they didn’t care by convincing themselves they were doing the right thing or, as posited by a member of backroom staff on the aforementioned TV show, had been driven crazy by the killings. One old man, a journalist, claimed not to know what the men sharing his office building had been doing. ‘You’re very smooth’, he’d tell the gangsters, who told him that not only had they not hidden anything, but his own editor sentenced many people to grizzly death via his paper’s manipulation of facts and propaganda.

Quite apart from the honesty with which these acts are described and reenacted – with the backing of numerous politicians including the vice president – and the awful film they made, what adds to the surrealism is the fact that the end credits describe these men as ‘characters’, and most people involved in making the documentary have remained anonymous. I’m intrigued to watch the film with the director’s commentary activated, as it seems Oppenheimer made the film for the gangsters. Of course he was enabling their admissions of guilt, but I wonder how friendly he grew with these sociopaths.

I’m not sure I can recommend this to anyone. Scenes such as the one where a victim’s ghost thanks his murderer for ‘sending me to heaven’ and shakes his hand are beyond the pale, as are the frank admissions of political corruption, fleeting admissions of guilt and general headfuckery. But at the same time, it’s essential. This is how people think. People who think they are engaged in a moral crusade against their political opponents. As mentioned in the film, history is written by the victors, and it is rare we witness in documentary form such clear evidence of how insane the ‘winners’ can be. Aside from letting us know what some monsters did decades ago, and a continent away, it’s also a cautionary tale about how even the most disgusting wrongs can be painted as right – as long as you hold the brush.

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