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The Act of Killing

August 2, 2013
The Act of Killing

In the run-up to The Act of Killing I’ve tried various ways of explaining what it’s supposed to be about, and few approaches seem up to the task. Not only is it concerned with a situation that seems incredible at first glance, director Joshua Oppenheimer approaches it in such an unusual manner that it usually takes a few tries to explain it. But while the topic and methods may be obscure, the real subject is much simpler: like Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing is about how we talk to ourselves about ourselves, this time at the level of an entire culture, with the stories forming the basis of an entire political regime.

Some background is in order, since Oppenheimer skims most of the history. In the ’60s, as the United States fretted about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the region. The left-leaning president Sukarno was deposed in a military coup, and anyone opposed to the new dictatorship could be accused of being a communist and subject to execution. The killings were carried out by paramilitary groups and gangsters, nearly on a whim, and there was no retribution.

The genocide remains as an open secret in Indonesia. The cultural narrative seems to run along the lines of “the communists were here; they were bad; now they’re gone.” The paramilitary groups still exist as some sort of amalgam of the Tea Party, the Mafia, and the Ku Klux Klan. They run their political candidates for office, engage in illegal (gambling) and quasilegal (protection) rackets, and hold positions of power despite their former actions as lynch mobs on the scale of one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. Everyone knows what happened, and still lives in fear of being accused of communist sympathies, but nobody talks about it. Except, it seems, the killers themselves, who have built lives and reputations on their actions, and speak proudly of them.

When Oppenheimer’s original attempts to tell the story of the survivors and descendants were stymied, he realized that he could actually turn to these executioners themselves, and in their brazenness they would speak volumes about what actually happened. Indeed, each one seemed to start with a demonstration of their own personal favorite methods. We see one of them, Anwar Congo, demonstrating how he’d garrote his victims, but he’s not happy with the depiction. Does he think he comes off badly? no: as he reviews the footage he starts nitpicking what he’s wearing, what the stand-in for the victim is wearing, the mood and demeanor. Just wrapping a wire around someone’s neck was somehow not a clear enough visual for him.

And here’s where Oppenheimer’s real genius came in: why not let Anwar and other former killers produce their own scenes for the documentary? They grew up on lurid cinematic violence, and even credit the movies for their inspiration — Anwar’s garrote was lifted from hit men in Hollywood gangster films — so let them not just tell, but re-enact their own stories for the screen.

The result is compellingly bizarre: a mixture of documentary interviews, production footage, and B-movie scenes running from gritty gangster stories to surrealistic dream narratives. Anwar himself takes on some of the victims’ roles — his own idea, it should be noted — increasingly desperate to tell all sides of the story in a way that absolves him and his compatriots.

Killing is, as one of the subjects says, the worst thing one can possibly do, and so it requires an excuse to allow the killer to live with himself. And it requires larger, even more complicated excuses to allow the society that condones it to live with itself. But telling these stories to ourselves and telling them to the wider world is a very different thing. In asking the killers to tell their own stories aloud, Oppenheimer externalizes them, and allows us to engage not just with the facts but with the stories themselves.

This film very likely could only have been made in Indonesia, where these stories are so close to the surface. It stands in contrast to the picture of Chile painted in Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la Luz, where there is little official suppression of the survivors and descendants of Pinochet’s dictatorship but an informal code of silence smothers all discussion. Even the towns in the American deep south run by former lynch mobbers know better than to speak so brazenly. But these cover stories are hardly unique to Indonesia; we all build our lives on convenient fictions. Oppenheimer’s film stands as a reminder of all these dirty little secrets.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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