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Coming to Terms with ‘The Act of Killing’

Posted July 19, 2013

Note: This round-up of the conversation surrounding The Act of Killing originally ran on our blog for the film’s theatrical premiere on July 19th. The film returns to Columbia today, October 4, at our sister theater Ragtag Cinema. Check out Ragtag’s website for showtimes. The screening on Monday, October 7 will feature a post-film Q and A with University of Missouri film professors.

The Act of Killing (T/F 2013) is without a doubt one of the most important films of the year. Making its theatrical premiere today, this relentlessly shocking, surreal and disturbing film has already generated a fervent conversation spanning the globe.

In his director’s statement, Joshua Oppenheimer describes meeting former death squad leaders, men unanimously boastful about their role in the anti-communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. Unafraid of prosecution, the killers remain part of Indonesia’s ruling political class. They share a love of American movies, and are happy to participate when Oppenheimer has them re-stage their crimes in lurid, nightmarish cinematic set-pieces. They enact the roles of both victim and perpetrator, and then watch themselves perform on screen.

This clip from the film shows the horrifyingly banal attitude towards mass murder these men exhibit. In it, former paramilitary leader Anwar Congo demonstrates an execution technique designed to minimize post-kill cleanup. Then he performs a little dance.

In a fascinating interview with Sight and Sound, Oppenheimer talks about how the film evolved from documenting the victims to filming the perpetrators.

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast. And the audience, seeing people who killed hundreds, thousands of people, and boasting about it, will see at once why we’re so afraid, and taste a little bit the nature of this regime.”

And [from then on] I felt I was entrusted with a work of historical and moral importance, exposing a regime of impunity through its celebration of killing. At that point I think I saw [killers like Anwar] as the people who killed my friends’ relatives and were keeping my friends afraid. But inevitably I became close to them. It was a very intimate journey: I think to make a good film with anybody you have to get very close, be willing to be intimate. I went looking for embodiments of pure evil, but found ordinary people.

In another interview with Nicolas Rapold of Film Comment, Oppenheimer talks about his evolving relationship with the killers.

I would like to hear a bit about that, if you could. What’s it like to be undercover, in a way, for so long? I mean, emotionally—you’re describing a certain repression.

Well, first I take a little issue with the term “undercover,” because of course at the beginning…

I mean that more as a figure of speech.

No, but it’s an insightful one, it’s one worth exploring because at the beginning many of these men had different goals. The general goal at first was to glorify what they did. That could never have been my goal: to glorify mass murder. So in that sense I was undercover. But people’s goals changed. Adi comes into this film acting as though he wants to use it as a vehicle for reconciliation, and to say sorry to the victims. And I thought, Oh, wow, this is an opportunity to go in a very interesting new direction. And very quickly the shallowness of that position made itself clear, and the depths of his hypocrisy became clear. And by the end he realizes that this film’s going to make him look bad, and I could be openly confrontational with him, as I am in the car, when I talk about going to The Hague, and that it would be good for the victims’ families for the truth to come out. So by the end there with him, I’m not undercover.

With Anwar, he starts with this motive, but somehow around his nightmares, a second and very unconscious but almost physical motive comes out: to get in touch with his brokenness, the part of him that died from killing people. And working with him on that and the whole second half of the film, I was also not really undercover anymore. When he’s choking on the roof, the dishonest thing to do would be to stop filming, or even to go put my arm around him and say it’s going to be okay. Because it’s not going to be okay. And I’ve told him what the film is now, and he’s said, Okay, if that’s what it is, I understand, I’m not angry, I want to see it. I’ve told him, I’ll send you a DVD when it’s safe to do so. I didn’t say, Do you want to see it? Because I didn’t feel he had to see the film.

Oppenheimer was assisted by numerous Indonesian collaborators, who were forced to stay anonymous due to the political uncertainty surrounding the project. In her piece “The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing” Caroline Cooper describes the disconcerting effect of seeing “anonymous” appear again and again in the film’s end credits. She also reports on the carefully arranged private screenings that have spread throughout Indonesia, where the film is likely to be suppressed.

After seeing the film, documentary heavy-weights Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers. The pair discusses the film in a video piece for Vice magazine, where they highlight its cinematic qualities and speculate about what it means for the future of documentary. Also, Morris penned a lengthy essay on the film for Slate, where he compares Oppenheimer’s use of recreations to Hamlet’s staging of “The Murder of Gonzago” to “catch the conscience” of his uncle Claudius. He also explores the Indonesian genocide’s relationship to Vietnam-era U.S. foreign policy.

Elsewhere, in an essay at the New Statesman, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses the film in connection to what he views as the erosion of the public space.

The Act of Killing‘s festival run resulted in an impressive collection of awards and now the critical reaction is overwhelmingly positive. At Slate, Dana Stevens calles it “Among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting — a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.” While A.O. Scott of the NY Times remarks “The horror of The Act of Killing does not dissipate easily or yield to anything like clarity.” And Jonah Weiner of the New Yorker observes, “The typical investigative documentary sets about unearthing a truth obscured by ignorance and/or deception, but with The Act of Killing, that structure is severely scrambled: what Oppenheimer ultimately seeks to reveal is Congo’s self-deception in the face of acts he freely admits he committed.”

Clearly, this conversation is far from over.

The Act of Killing plays today at the Landmark Sunshine in NYC with director Joshua Oppenheimer in person. Drafthouse films has announced numerous cities to follow.

 
 
 
 
   
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