The Act of Killing
When I reviewed Holy Motors, I mentioned how the weight of expectations and can affect one’s appreciation of a film. You can’t go too wrong if you anticipate very little, but a widely heralded masterpiece has much to live up to. The Act of Killing has topped many critics’ Best of 2013 lists, and it arrives with the validation of the significant and growing impact it has made in Indonesia. There, it appears that a landscape in which genocide has been officially endorsed for decades may be on the verge of change. Joshua Oppenheimer’s achievement is a considerable one, and his film (he is reticent of the strictures of the term documentary) is an often-powerful one. Yet I’m wary of the suggestion that the picture somehow constitutes “better” art due to the real change it has instituted in the world. In its longer Director’s Cut form at least, The Act of Killing is frequently an indulgent sprawl. The decision to allow the perpetrators ample opportunity to indict themselves screams out for a more disciplined hand to guide and focus the final edit. Perhaps the shorter cut remedies this, as judicious pruning of the re-enactments (and performance pieces) might have ensured a more rewardingly concise path to the ambiguous final scene.
No doubt, Oppenheimer’s achievement in editing down 1,200 hours of film to fewer than three should be recognised, but I can’t help think he needed someone more ruthless tapping him on the shoulder. That is, if he wished to justify eschewing the classical documentary form as he has here. Aside from the introductory text Act is almost elliptical in providing context regarding the Indonesian regime, for which it has received criticism from some quarters. To his credit, Oppenheimer has cogently presented his case that this wasn’t the path he wished to follow; what became important was the now of these people and what it means to Indonesia now. As such, Act’s achievement as a piece of filmmaking is in drawing out, with awareness or otherwise, truths from those who committed these horrors. While Oppenheimer says he made the film with the reaction of the Indonesian population in mind, the western eye can nevertheless readily recognise the twin pulls of denial (that any crime was committed) and tacit admission/confession (the very act of engaging with a filmmaking platform, even leaving aside personal dramatisation).
Oppenheimer’s analogy to what it would be like if the Nazis had won WWII and senior SS officers could be found boasting of their acts forty years later is an appropriate one; it is not so much the justifications or acknowledgements of guilt that are surprising (they are not; they accord with the responses one might expect of one who find the means to live with doing something terrible) but that Oppenheimer has happened across an environment where such admissions remain couched in official endorsements; one where those who have done these things are officially heroes.
At least, that was the case until the groundswell of opinion since the film was first shown in Indonesia. I mentioned context, and that I can see why Oppenheimer has taken his chosen path. I don’t necessarily agree that it is wholly successful, however. He expects the viewer to accept random elements, or repetitive restaging sequences. And these intermittently hold power, but I’d argue that the kind of background he eruditely provides on the extensive Blu ray release supplementary materials is at least as relevant as his more distracted inclusions. Ironically, the only high-profile western feature to address this period (that comes to mind), Year of Living Dangerously, also manages to present only a murky insight into the Indonesian political landscape.
Act’s introductory subtitles establish Oppenheimer’s subjects and how they came to positions of authority in the wake of the 1965 military coup that brought President Suharto to power. Those who opposed the military regime were accused of being communists and, within a year over one million people had been murdered (with the aid and endorsement of western governments; this is the only overt reference to such complicity in the documentary and it is curious that Oppenheimer cites interviews with US officials involved, ones that do not make the cut). The film follows (in the main) a trio of paramilitary gangsters (fond of citing “free men” as the derivation of “gangster”), two of whom were enlisted to lead the death squads, (Anwar Congo, the central figure in the documentary, and Adi Zulkadry; Herman Koto is younger, and Oppenheimer fails to clarify if he has done similarly to his peers). It is noted that these men have “been in power and persecuted opponents ever since”. They were “movie theatre gangsters” who loved films and were recruited for their capacity for violence (and, in their words, were inspired by American films of the ’50s and ’60s in terms of methods of violence and inflicting same).
Oppenheimer found that, without exception, those interviewed would proudly tell tales of what they had done; as the process evolved, and as he struggled to understand this attitude, the scenario encompassed recreations of the deeds (arising from their inclinations towards movies and theatre). It’s this, besides the bold admissions, that sets the documentary apart; a strange and disturbing melange of the raw and amateur, of gangster movie riffs on their tortures and killings and of extravagant musical number performances. This is juxtaposed with various levels of denial and admissions of guilt, most clearly seen in Anwar’s transition from cheerfully recounting his methods at a killing ground (“It was like we were killing… happily”) to his return there in the closing minutes; his commentary is now punctuated by involuntary retching.
And yet even there we find ambiguity. Is this a genuine response, or a show for the cameras by a man beginning to realise the unsympathetic light in which he has portrayed himself. Oppenheimer clearly thinks the former is the case, but empathy is rarely glimpsed in the film’s leading figures (ironically it may be the less articulate Herman who carries the most, since he so fully enters into the spirit of his acting roles).
The director appears now quite versed in deflecting criticisms of a light-touch approach to his subjects. During interviews he notes how he tackled Anwar when the latter suggested he now knew how those he tortured felt, following the staged re-enactments. Oppenheimer is also open about his possible failures of judgement in some cases. One of the actors, who played a victim, recounts the murder of a relative; the director admits that the connection was only made when footage was reviewed (the actor has since died). He adds that now he might not include such footage on principle. It’s this kind of understanding that has the potential of both dragging the film off course and adding crucial context to scenes that leave us doubtful of his choices. Werner Herzog suggests the director has captured subject matter that comes along only once every 50 years. Which may be true, but that doesn’t mean some of the director’s choices don’t undercut a film of such lofty status.
The contrast between Adi and Anwar, at least as Oppenheimer wishes to present them, is one of a man who has inured himself against the horrors of what he has done by wrapping himself in the colours of state endorsement and one who cannot escape the nightmares that result from a pricking conscience. The former professes to no guilt or regret, and his clarity over the consequences of making the film is piercing (“The whole story will be reversed. Not 180 degrees… 360 degrees”). Adi’s attititude is not to kick the hornet’s nest, believing that “Even if everything you’re finding out is true, it’s not good”. He shows a touch of bravado by responding “I’m ready” to the suggestion he might be called to the Hague to answer for war crimes. But he also parries accusations with examples of US history where justice has not been served (such as Guantanamo Bay). His clarity is perhaps more frightening, because it is so sharp; “We were the cruel ones” he says, initiating the conversation with his fellows. He makes short shrift of a newspaper man who claims ignorance of their deeds (“If you didn’t know, I’d be shocked”) and openly addresses the thought process required to live with such acts; “It’s all about finding the right excuse”. Since killing is the worst crime one can do, the key is to find a way not to feel guilty; for Adi it comes with the rationalisation that “After all, morality is relative”.
Oppenheimer has since stated that he knew Adi would hate the film. Anwar, with whom he maintains contact, has said that it is honest and he supports it (although, since it suggests remorse on his part, however reluctant, it makes a good defensive posture). The re-enactments involving Anwar and Herman find the film at its most heightened and intense, but the more Oppenheimer repeats such scenes the less powerful they become. Anwar’s journey from voicing cosmetic disappointments (with how something was staged, or how he acted out a scene) to his inability to fully act out his own torture and execution is (apparently) revealing. But it doesn’t resonate as strongly as the sequence in which he repeatedly stabs Herman’s “child” (a soft toy) after Herman attempts to “bribe” him. (Herman is in drag during this scene; he is in drag frequently during the documentary. While Oppenheimer has explained this as indicative of Herman’s love of theatre in interviews, this is an example of the director choosing to emphasise something completely free of the context necessary to justify such attention.)
Also noticeable on a number of occasions is that some of the most chilling moments are almost tangential to the main characters we follow, which led me to question whether Oppenheimer’s had set out his store to maximum effect. The major “set piece” finds Pancasila Youth members, their wives and children, staging the massacre of a village. Oppenheimer films it with an eye for classic movie mayhem. But it’s the casual, unguarded bragging of one of the leaders to his men of how “If they were pretty I’d rape them all” rather than the shouts of “Chop off their heads” during the re-enactments that persists in the mind. Likewise, the fawning regional TV station show host who interviews the leader of the Youth. The latter states that they do not fear revenge “because we’d exterminate them all”, to cheers from the audience of Youth members. Behind the scenes, technicians speculate how killing all those people sent those on the death squads crazy (and made them rich). This is more impactful than a subsequent garish death scene where Herman feeds Anwar his own entrails and genitals; indeed, once we reach that point Oppenheimer has uncomfortably extended the performance aspect of the piece from disturbing curiosity to over-inflated extravagance.
Past master documentarians Wernor Herzog and Errol Morris came on board the project as executive producers, bowled over by Oppenheimer’s achievement. They wax philosophical over how Act straddles the borderline between documentary and fiction, and the surrealistic attempts to reaffirm lies through fresh inventions (which serve in Anwar’s case to at least partially expose those lies). While I would agree with the comment (in respect of what constitutes good documentary form) that “facts do not constitute truths”, there is also a stage where Oppenheimer’s remove from the picture affects its effectiveness. While I have some sympathy for Morris in his disagreement with the critic who complained he knew even less about the situation in Indonesia than when the documentary started, somewhere along the way the director takes his eye off the road. He recovers with the final scene but this in itself feels a little too symmetrical, a little too neat.
It’s indicative of such an oblique encounter that the ensuing conversation revolves heavily around both the facts of the regime and the facts regarding the filmmaker. In the case of the latter, it may not always be a good idea to make the maker a tangible part of the process as it runs the risk of becoming a distraction. But Oppenheimer appears to be halfway there already, identifying the falseness of the classic fly-on-the-wall approach in any given conversation. It might have taken some rethinking but it is pertinent given the number of questions and continuity issues, that this took eight years to make. (Other anecdotes are merely arresting filler, such as how the BBC rejected the project with the rejoinder “I don’t want my strand awash with atrocity”).
It becomes a question of how well the film stands up devoid of supporting materials, interviews and articles. Perhaps there’s an acknowledgement of this in the packaging of such additions to view via bit-torrent. Arguably, those whose interest is piqued will find out more. This is a story, or a conversation that has only just begun (the director’s next project is a companion piece). Oppenheimer (and co-directors Anonymous – who like many of the crew goes unnamed for fear of reprisals – and Christine Cynn) has created a piece that has already enacted change (in Indonesia the issue now has a forum, and Anwars will no longer be found boasting of their deeds) although firmer gestures such as tribunals appear to be in the realms of speculation. Errol Morris opines that, unlike Oppenheimer, “I think we learn nothing”; he may be correct, but their work as filmmakers testifies to their ability to bring recognition and change however fleeting.
Oppenheimer fitfully masters his themes in this “new form of documentary… of the imagination as opposed to everyday lives”. But he has made his strongest points repeatedly, well before his Director’s Cut reaches its over-extended conclusion. And, for one of such clear intelligence and erudition, his complaints of a pervading societal “Star Wars morality” come across as slightly ingenuous. As if he has tapped into something hitherto unexplored (when nothing could be further from the truth). Oppenheimer’s subject matter is striking and disturbing and his method of approaching it is, at least partially, equally compelling. But I came way wishing his grip on the material had been firmer.