Act of Killing: Stage Fright


actofkillingIn order to better understand how remarkably absurd this documentary is, imagine the Nazis winning World War II. Over the following decades they would have built a society in Germany and its colonies where it is argued, and in many places genuinely believed, that it was necessary to kill so many Jews or they would have corrupted everything. The SS and Gestapo officers go on and live their lives, occasionally haunted by the memories of what they did, but comforted by their fellow citizens’ support and admiration. That is a fantasy similar to a real situation in Indonesia. It may sound offensive to make those comparisons, and it is a typically Western viewpoint. But the thing is that a lot of people, including the director before going to Indonesia, have never heard of the 1965-1966 mass killings whose consequences are portrayed in this film.

The purge took place in Indonesia after a failed coup attempt – hundreds of thousands of people were labeled “communists” and murdered by paramilitary forces. As a result, the actual communist party in the country was destroyed and Suharto took power in 1967, ushering in a new right-leaning era, supported by Western powers. Out of this originated the myth that all the victims of the purge were communists and that the mass murders had to be carried out to save the country. This myth survives today and the men who took part in torturing and killing innocent people are not only free, but considered honorable members of society, with ties to government officials. The murderers often belonged to Pancasila Youth, an organization steeped in the blood of innocents.

No repercussions to fear
Some of these men appear in this film openly and wholeheartedly, simply because they have no repercussions to fear. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer had gotten to know them years earlier and was shocked to learn what they had done and how they could talk of their crimes against humanity the way you’d talk about shenanigans from your teenage years. We are introduced mainly to Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two veterans who love old Hollywood movies and are happy to reconstruct in front of a camera how they tortured and murdered people back in the day. A project begins where Oppenheimer has them recreating what they did in the shape of Western movies, film noir thrillers and musicals, all dressed up in costumes and bloody make-up, taking turns being interrogator and victim. As the men talk about their past, it becomes clear that they are still sometimes haunted by nightmares stemming from awful experiences that can’t be unseen, as if they know after all what they did was wrong and not necessary acts of war. Playing the victim also puts them in touch with human emotions they weren’t counting on; near the end of the film comes powerful moments where Congo faces his demons. This is a startling, eerie, often bizarre and revolting documentary depicting a moral order turned upside down – but, and I’m quoting one of the murderers, “the winners write their own rules”. This is a case where the bad guys won and they shaped a society; Oppenheimer draws clear ties between the individuals in the film and those who are in power.

Not surprisingly, the Indonesian government was not pleased with this film, and tried to smear a “foreigner” (Oppenheimer) even though Indonesians were involved in the production on every level. But The Act of Killing has reportedly spawned much debate throughout the country, and with a new administration in power the film could be one effective tool to help Indonesia address its past. 

The Act of Killing 2012-Denmark-Britain-Norway. 122 min. Color. Produced by Christine Cynn, Anne Köhncke, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joram ten Brink, Michael Uwemedimo. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Trivia: Many of the crew, including a producer and a co-director, are listed as “Anonymous” in order to ensure their safety. Followed by The Look of Silence (2014).

BAFTA: Best Documentary. European Film Award: Best Documentary.

Last word: “[One day] I went home feeling utterly tainted, as though in encouraging this violence to be dramatized, I was complicit myself. Because I could see that when Anwar acted in those scenes, he was unwittingly re-entering the same kind of performative self-state that had allowed him to kill in the first place. Anyway, I had a horrible nightmare that night. And the next day, I couldn’t sleep at all because I was afraid of having the nightmare. Then I collapsed because I was exhausted, but then it started again. And that cycle went on for eight months or so, that dream. It was always that somehow, because of a scene we were shooting, my family were being tortured. It was terrible. It was terrible. People often ask me if making ‘The Act of Killing’ was frightening, and they usually mean, was I afraid physically. But it was frightening emotionally.” (Oppenheimer, Indiewire)

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