It took me about a month to digest watching Joshua Oppenheimer‘s documentary The Act of Killing that was recently released in the United States and that constitutes as much a film about Indonesian history as a historical film about Indonesia as I will illustrate in this article. It took me all that time to write about it and I still feel a pain in my stomach as I am writing, because this film explores the dark depth of humanity and of a human system in ways that have been rarely examined.
The film is a 2-hour long editing from more than a thousand of hours of footage that Oppenheimer filmed for the last nine years in Indonesia. What the film shows is the testimony of several Indonesian “gangsters,” re-enacting dramatically the mass killings that they have been perpetuating in 1965 during the dictatorship-backed purge of several hundreds of thousands of people that were accurately or not suspected to be communists. Along the film, the re-enactment goes from a ‘simple’ reconstitution of the killings on the site where they were committed, to the greatly dramatic reconstitution in various forms of Hollywood and local cinema orchestrated directly by the perpetrators themselves (Oppenheimer let them free to choose the form they wanted). The surreal result of such scenes oscillates between the surrealism of Bunuel, the aesthetics of Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts (1827) and the insupportable procedural precision of the Marquis de Sade.
Oppenheimer’s method is very interesting in how he regularly shows previous footage to the perpetrator that he is mainly following in this film, Anwar Congo, and he then film him while he is watching himself on the screen. To the viewer’s disbelief, the large majority of his comments addresses the way he appear in the film — the way he dressed for example. Oppenheimer, in many interviews about the film, says how he is convinced that such triviality when tackling the tragic question of mass killing is Congo’s self-defense, his means not to fathom the reality that seemed to have however left some marks in him — that springs back more as the film goes — on the appearing contrary of his friends with who he committed these murders. Similarly, the scenes that they act together — that is where the title of the film embraces its double meaning — seem to be either a sort of surreal reconstitution of they way they imagined themselves while they were committing these murders (policemen, soldiers, knights of some kind etc.), or a retroactive means to fictionalize their crimes, and therefore to detach them even more from reality.
The way Oppenheimer composes his film is remarkable as it manages simultaneously to never deresponsabilize the perpetrators and to make them appear as also victims of history. This is, of course, an extremely sensitive problem as one could not legitimately claim that all are victims in the same way. Millions of people have lost members of their family without ever knowing what happened to them, and without being able to properly mourn them as the same forces are still in power in Indonesia and the families of those killed — a lot of them are ethnically Chinese — are still marginalized and bullied. One of the perpetrator clearly illustrate that, as he explains that he cannot be considered as a criminal: “the law is written by the winners. I am a winner, I can decide what it is a crime and what is not.” Oppenheimer (also in interviews) explains that someone like Anwar Congo “has not been tried, but he has been punished,” since his past haunts him every day despite his best effort to minimize it. The director insists that he is still in contact with him despite what the viewer might first think: “I don’t like him, but I love him in a certain way.” Again, there is no process of deresponsabilization involved here. Simply, the actual killers of history are often what we could call the proletariat of the system that encourages or orders such killings. They are the one to who it belongs to “do the dirty work” — that involves its lot of psychological trauma — of a more or less organized system and its hierarchy.
In this regard, it is not innocent if the only people who were truly angry at the film are the politicians — some of them are shown in the film — who did not kill anyone in the literal meaning of it, but who are part of a political dynasty that organized the conditions of the political purge in 1965. As Oppenheimer himself says, “if they were not upset, it means that I would have not done my job right.” As I was observing in the beginning of this text, there seems to be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ The Act of Killing as it has broken a taboo in the Indonesian population who did not know how to address its past. Similarly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995), lead by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the post-Apartheid South Africa, this film acts as a civilizational ‘therapy’ in which, no one is delivered from his or her responsibility, yet the collective project for the nation’s future is understood as more important than the desire of revenge of the true victims of the past conflict. Of course, in the case of Indonesia, it cannot be accomplished through a legal and institutional process yet, but Oppenheimer’s film would have lead the way to trigger the historical conditions of such process.
For more on The Act of Killing:
Democracy Now’s interview of Joshua Oppenheimer:
DP/30’s interview of Joshua Oppenheimer: