Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.
In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use a lot ) of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.
Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.
When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.
Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone. And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.
His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?
One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.
In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.
Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.
If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.
And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.
The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race. How they ‘tamed’ the land.
If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.
If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.
I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.