Issue 10: Winter 2012

The Act of Killing (2012)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

One curiosity I had about The Act of Killing, a documentary that pays a visit to the members of a 1960s Indonesian death squad who are now in retirement, concerned the spoiler alert its press coverage would inevitably entail. Who writing about it could resist the temptation to discuss the film's mind-blowing resolution? (In other words, you've been warned, though the spoiler is more implied than stated in what follows.) After pondering this, I felt guilty for thinking of the film as a kind of spectacle, an entertainment that delivers a scarcely believable blow to the gut for its narrative conclusion. Such are the dilemmas director Joshua Oppenheimer creates for his viewers, his documentary-called by Werner Herzog "unprecedented in the history of cinema"-being a singular achievement by any measure.

As with every narrative, this story has a protagonist: Anwar Congo, the guileless star of a feature production about his life. Guilelessness governs the tale, first making the documentary possible because Congo and his cohort, murderers all of them, agree to participate in it, and second ensuring that the project results in an epiphany for him, one it is, as a film, uniquely able to deliver. It's safe to say there is nothing else quite like The Act of Killing in the history of cinema. At same time, the movie is recognizable as a product of a global media environment, one in which the genre of Reality (as in TV) is arguably the paradigmatic artform of its day. How prevalent Reality TV is in Indonesia is less important than the suggestion this film makes about the present day universality of a media-led narcissism; wherever you are in the world, it would seem, the camera's suitability as a pretext for the performance of the self is taken as a given. Congo's participation in the film suggests that appearing on camera has become an end in itself, even when the pretext for it is highly objectionable. Writing on this subject in his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (2005), Thomas De Zengotita calls the human need to be recognized "almost primordial," an idea abundantly attested to by Oppenheimer's film.

The familiarity of the documentary format draws viewers into the complex tale the film narrates about recent history in Indonesia. Even though this is a country I know little about, in the Killing characters I recognize a Kim Kardashian level of self-regard as they re-enact the murders they committed in the mid-60s in name of anti-communism. A veritable genocide, the numbers are as nauseating as the relish with which these gangsters reminisce about the role they played in facilitating it: over one million people were executed by the army and death squads in the space of a single year for the crime of being a putative communist or intellectual, or for being ethnic Chinese.

For their troubles, Anwar Congo and his henchmen enjoy celebrity status as founding members of the right wing Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organization that to this day holds the country in its grip (this includes reports of Pancasila intimidation and beatings meted out to staff of a number of Indonesian newspapers in response to their coverage of the movie). The film demonstrates how contemporary Indonesia continues to be shaped by the 1965 military coup that enabled Congo to transform from small time hoodlum into historical grade assassin. Choice scenes show hammy re-enactments of anti-communist purges in front of an audience that includes children; a government minister respectfully addressing thousands of youth at a paramilitary convention; Congo's colleague, the heavy-set Herman Koto, dressed in drag performing a Bollywood-like number with similarly attired female dancers; and most bizarrely, an almost joyful discussion with a talk show host about the killing methods employed by Anwar and his crew, complete with studio audience applause.

In his notes about the production, Oppenheimer makes a connection between the way Congo is eager to portray his murderous self on film and the thumbs up given to the camera by the American soldiers while humiliating their Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "What is most unsettling about the [Abu Ghraib] photos" he writes "is not the violence they document, but rather what they suggest to us about how their participants wanted, in that moment, to be seen." In Oppenheimer's view, the Abu Ghraib photos are documents of "the imagination involved in persecution." Storytelling, the persuasiveness of a narrative-any narrative-has the potential to prevail over moral considerations, even if these involve the torture or killing of another person. The lure of the camera combined with the peculiarities of contemporary Indonesia is one reason why the narcissism of the killers sees such unbounded expression in this work. Oppenheimer reports that though he initially set out to make a film about the experiences of those who survived the 1965-66 massacres, he and his crew found themselves confronted with the threat of arrest and even worse consequences. Filming the perpetrators of that massacre proved to be much easier, to the degree that Oppenheimer and his crew were offered police escort to locations were mass killings had occurred and help to keep crowds away when filming at the site.

Congo makes it clear that in terms of personal icons, Hollywood is his master. He styles himself after the crime bosses he has seen in the movies, and one re-enactment adopts a noir-ish mise en scene. Initial discomfort in the film comes from watching the gangsters' happily pretending to garrotte one another in the spirit of historical testament. At one point, Congo dyes his white hair black, acting on the desire to more closely conform to the 'idealized' representations that influenced him. The initial opportunity the film provides for Congo to fulfill his Hollywood fantasy works to close a circle that, at first, appears to be perfectly free of a moral dimension. By providing these thugs with an opportunity to fictionalize their exploits the filmmakers tap into the same ethical deficit the military junta initially exploited. The resulting confusion between a fictive self and the reality of his crimes proves, in Congo's case, to be his undoing. Resolving in this unambiguous moral victory, The Act of Killing tells us a lot about the kind of truth we can discover through film.

Contemporary communications media, which today exist as a discursive field, a network of relay and distribution, carry within them the potential deception of appearing to bind reality with the unreality of the thing it simulates. In the gap that exists between the two lies a chasm of ethical quandaries, many of them strikingly modern in the problems they present. Recent debates about so-called Creepshots, for instance, revolve around the relationship between depicter and depicted. Is it OK to take photos of young women without their awareness or permission and post these on the web for an audience, probably exclusively male, who are strangers? Or copy and redistribute images of those same women that they might have put on Facebook to share with their friends? Gawker reporter Adrian Chen's recent efforts to expose the previously anonymous identity of one high-profile exponent of this practice inspired a widespread debate on the web. Denizens of Reddit, a user-edited site where users can create subgroups for the indulgence of any proclivity, took considerable umbrage at Chen's violation of the site's commitment to protecting the anonymity of its users, a safeguard under which much of Reddit's activity, some of it unsavoury, operates. Reddit members seek to protect their right to free speech and at the same time want to deny the right to privacy of the women whose images they exploit. In a world accustomed to the pleasures that come with ease of access to the contemporary communication technologies, control of one's image can prove to be elusive, a lesson both Creepshot proponents and Anwar Congo found themselves to be subjected.

In her essay Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Susan Sontag parses a similar set of confusions. Focusing on the still photograph, she ponders the ethical quandaries that looking at images of human suffering create. These are problems most people are likely to have experienced. Sontag writes: "It is felt...that no one has the right to experience the suffering of others at a distance." The ease with which we can look at photo of, say, survivors of a Nazi concentration camp is incommensurate with the knowledge about humanity's capacity to inflict pain on others such a photo so starkly imparts. When we say a photo is 'hard to look at' we mean this exactly: it's difficult to come to terms what it tells us. But even if we look away, Sontag notes that the knowledge gained by looking at difficult images helps to "deepen one's sense of reality." Looking at images of cruelty has an ethical value. And just like when you extend your 'self' and enhance it through a media representation that then gets distributed in a manner beyond your control, imaging technologies bring with them responsibilities we are not always equipped to handle. Being narcissistic, being Kim Kardashian, isn't the same as committing mass murder, but I put the Indonesian killer Congo onto a continuum that includes our own everyday reality because at the film's end he finds himself the victim of a very contemporary problem. The Act of Killing shares in common with the Creepshots debate a lesson in how the power to create and distribute images comes with an apparently still in development appreciation of risks that ability will necessarily entail. More now than ever before, the boundary between the real and its representation is difficult to discern, but it becomes clearer in definition when the apparently superficial business of creating images turns out to have real world consequences, which are never less difficult to appreciate than when they reflect negatively on ourselves.

-Rosemary Heather