Last year, few documentaries received as much praise and circulation as Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing. The basic conceit of the film is one that will likely enter the realms of fame for those in the business of watching, studying, or producing documentaries: Oppenheimer gives Anwar Congo—an Indonesian “gangster” from the 60s who killed upward of a thousand people that were suspected of being in or supporting the Communist party—a budget to create a film reenacting the murders in the style of his favorite genres. Congo and his cohorts are famous in Indonesia, as their murders were sanctioned by the government, and their carefree attitude toward the killings is captured in full.
The result is a film that interrogates the psyche of mass-murderers; sure, the Indonesian genocides are the root, and social context is considered, but this film is about Congo and his friends. Sadly, the point was missed even by astute organizations such as the BFI. When considered in this light, Oppenheimer’s ingenuiousness is clear: Congo paints a picture of his psyche so clearly for Oppenheimer that we learn so much more than if the director had done a typical sit-down interview.
While the descriptions of the murders disturb us—e.g. Anwar’s blissful remarks when he returns to a prison area and shows how he would strangle Communists to death—the quality that truly haunts is these characters’ humanity. They are people. They laugh, joke, sing, smile, and do everything but repent. When they consider their atrocities, anytime an introspective thought occurs, they remember that they are heroes and drown out any second guesses. These men are horrible, yes, but we begin to see that the true evil is the system that supports them and allows them to ignore their crimes. You begin to consider the prospect that, maybe if you grew up in their position, you might not have the virtue of understanding the horrors. When you see a man speak of raping numerous Communist women as you might speak of a particularly favorite sweet from your childhood, you consider both the horrific nature of that man and—more importantly—the system that creates that mindset. When you see him add, “Especially if you get one who’s only 14-years-old. Delicious,” you cannot avoid questioning a culture that allows a national hero to claim this publicly.
Therein lies the intrigue of Anwar’s movie, and the entire concept behind The Act of Killing. The Pancasila Youth, an organization working for the government that similarly attacked the Communists, love mob/gangster movies—American ones, specifically, since that’s where the heart of the genre lies. Anwar sees these movies and chooses their style for recreation, which reveals a problematic quality of films that glorify violence: they support criminals so long as they have their code and the backing of society. In effect, these movies normalize violent crime and idolize it, which reflects problematic aspects of mainstream cinema.
But beyond that, there’s the reflection on how cinema normalizes behaviors for the individual. Anwar takes his perspective and creates a narrative that reveals his psyche, and thus achieves the “truth” he seeks. But it’s not the truth he intends; it’s not the “truth of history.” The principles of The Act of Killing—the ways Anwar recreates his atrocities—reveal an important quality of cinema and narratives in general—stories are subjective, as is truth. The Act of Killing not only captures Anwar in full, but how movies function deceptively as capturing reality. They normalize perspectives and make us forget that the truths of the subject are not those of the entire populace. This debate has permeated documentaries for a while (see: Nanook of the North ), and to see it tackled subtly and non-didactically here is icing on the cake.
The Act of Killing does have an arc, though. BEGIN SPOILERS In one scene, Anwar plays a Communist and is tortured. He is visibly shaken. When he re-watches the scene, he tells Joshua that he truly feels the emotions that ran through his victims. When he returns to the prison area and discusses the murders, he gags and vomits. Oppenheimer cleverly mimics the ending of The Searchers in the final shot of the film, where Anwar stands in the doorway between a shop with luxury items and cars driving through urban Indonesia. He thinks and then steps out of the shop onto the street. Perhaps Anwar will leave behind his status as a hero and attempt to exist in a society with the common folk, some of whom live in the shadow of the atrocities he committed. Oppenheimer only hints at this possibility, but in the process he has reminded us of a third important possibility of cinema: the ability to understand new perspectives by experiencing them on the silver screen. The icing on the cake gets richer and richer. END SPOILERS
The Act of Killing received a lot of praise, even from one of the best documentary makers in the world: Werner Herzog. Hopefully I have made it clear why this movie has received so much attention in so many critical (and non-critical) circles. As a psychological portrait, as a documentary, as a meditation on the art of cinema—it flourishes. As a piece of art, it accomplishes what so many directors strive for, and in so doing, earns its place in the annals of cinematic history.