The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

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A fantasy of heaven recreated by mass killer Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing

However the Oscars go when the envelopes are opened up on the 2nd March, there’s one film that seems destined to resonate around the world long after the final credits have rolled and the movie industry has turned its attention to the upcoming summer blockbusters. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, has been on a roll since its release, cleaning up at the major film festivals and garnering critical acclaim wherever it has been shown.

The film concerns itself with the purges that took place across Indonesia in 1965, inspired by the Suharto led Indonesian army to rid the military, the government and professions of communists or those suspected of communist sympathies. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

What makes The Act of Killing so unusual is the way it attempts to tell this story. Eschewing the usual witness statements, confrontations or dramatic reconstructions, the filmmakers track down perpetrators and invite them to re-enact their murders on film.

There is a reason for this, and it’s not just artistic choice. Oppenheimer’s initial attempts to gain testimony from victims of the massacres were thwarted by their terror of retribution, and then by obstacles placed in the director’s path by the Indonesian authorities. What went on throughout Indonesia in 1965 is fairly well known within the country, especially amongst the older generation who experienced it first hand. It’s hardly a state secret. Anyone with an internet connection and the time and inclination can get a pretty reliable account of what happened without too much difficulty. The problem is, until now no one in the West really cared, and in Indonesia it’s not a subject for open debate, or at least it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of Oppenheimer’s film. Many of the killers are well known within their communities and continue to enjoy not only impunity for their crimes, but connections at the higher levels of regional and national government.

It was only when Oppenheimer turned the story on its head by offering to narrate it from the perspective of the killers that he was able to break the deadlock. Such was their confidence in their invulnerability, these former mass murderers, many of them benign looking grandfathers, were happy to talk to the cameras. Not only were they willing to describe what they had done without apparent remorse, they were up for re-enacting their crimes in front of Oppenheimer’s cameras. Many were brought up on a diet of American gangster movies, and the idea of being the stars of their very own piece of cinéma vérité was apparently irresistible.

The device of standing back, letting the cameras roll and paying out enough rope until the subjects hang themselves (or in this case enough wire until they garrotte themselves), is not a new one. The director Nick Broomfield is probably one of its most successful practitioners, deftly deploying it to undermine the menace of Afrikaner white supremacist Eugène Terre-Blanche and turn him into an object of utter ridicule in his classic 1991 documentary “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”.

However, the praise for Oppenheimer has not been universal. Along with the accolades, there’s a small but influential group of reviewers who have taken extreme exception to The Act of Killing. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser found it particularly objectionable. “I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing JewsInstead of an investigation,  or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.”

The problem is, Oppenheimer’s solution to his difficulties in telling the world the story of the 1965 massacres doesn’t quite penetrate the darkness. The victims’ families were unable to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. The killers, who could tell their stories, were hampered by their complete inability to empathise with their victims or see events from any perspective other than their own. Fraser continues, “I find the scenes in the film where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance.”

There’s no doubt The Act of Killing is a tough film to watch. The version I saw ran to 2 hours 39 minutes, which was well over an hour more than I needed. By the end I felt utterly polluted, which I am sure is part of the point. Apparently even this was whittled down from over a thousand hours of footage. How I felt for the production team, having to live with it day in day out in their editing suites for years on end. Having these grisly scenes endlessly played out, with the ageing murderers given full rein to make-up and prosthetics like kids in a candy store, simply echoes Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion to the 1962 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann about the banality of evil.

We get the point. We got the point 20 minutes ago. More is simply over-indulging these monsters who lack any sense of self reflection, or interest really. By befriending them, pandering to their sense of self-importance and giving them free rein to express the contents of their twisted minds, there is a danger Oppenheimer has become morally contaminated himself. He keeps pushing his subjects ever so gently, ever so subtly, for some kind of broader awareness of what they did, but at the end of the day it’s just not there. If they are eventually forced to confront the reality of what they did, it won’t come from their revolting little playlets, but from the justice their fellow citizens may well demand once they see this film. In interviews Oppenheimer comes across as strangely protective of the principal character Anwar Congo, but with or without an Oscar I doubt he will be able to shield him from the rage his fellow Indonesians will unleash upon him and his cronies. Ironically, it is the film’s critical and commercial success rather than its radical approach that poses the greatest threat to the killers and the greatest hope for their country.

Could it be that given his difficulties extracting testimony from victims and the extreme nature of his subject matter, Oppenheimer bumped up against the limits of the documentary? As a novelist, I cannot help thinking that fiction might be better equipped to deal with these stories. Naturally, I have to declare an interest. My own novel, Francesca, deals with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which occurred ten years on from the 1965 purges. There were differences, of course, but there were many similarities. It was the same army acting with the same brutality and callous disregard for human life. The captains in the purges were colonels by the time East Timor came along, the colonels generals. In both cases the United States gave the Indonesian government carte blanche to carry on doing what they were doing, the imperative of containing the threat of communism, however spurious it actually was, trumping any notion of human rights or justice.

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel that bears her name commences, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. She and her family suffer as hundreds of thousands of her fellow Timorese did at the hands of the Indonesian army. As the writer, I can choose how I narrate those events. I can speak for those whose voice has been suppressed. In the artificial world I create, I can paradoxically come closer to the truth than some supposedly factual reconstruction. For really, who actually cares about Anwar Congo? He was just one of thousands of like-minded thugs, his importance lying only in the fact he was representative of so many. In a novel I can place the reader wherever I want: inside Francesca’s head, with the soldiers, as casual onlooker, whatever best serves my overall aim of distilling the truth from the events as they unfold.

That has always been the higher purpose of fiction, its greatest strength aside from the sheer love and pleasure of losing oneself in a good story. It is also why the novel refuses to die, and why I have chosen it as a medium of expression. Of course I will be biased, and no doubt various authors’ tricks will creep in as emotions and sympathies are manipulated towards the direction I desire to lead the reader. But at least I am not at the mercy of some marijuana addled gangster in unexamined denial, and neither are my readers.

Whatever else it has done, The Act of Killing has well and truly lanced the noxious boil of murder and lies festering beneath the surface of Indonesian society, and for that the country owes Oppenheimer a massive debt. He and his team of filmmakers have created a forum, at considerable personal cost, in which an open debate can now take place. For anyone who knows Indonesia, that is no small achievement. On that level, if that level alone, he got the truth he wanted for his film, the truth that is a prerequisite for the reconciliation the Indonesian people so desperately need. Whether that is enough to justify the stomach churning violence that constitutes the larger part of The Act of Killing, whether that elevates it from a series of mini snuff movies to a surreal masterpiece, is another matter entirely.

Francesca, published by Betimes Books, can be ordered here

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2 thoughts on “The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

  1. Laurence O'Bryan

    Great post, Donald. Anything that provokes contemplation of the inhumanity of that era deserves an Oscar. The carpet of history shimmers red with with the blood of innocent people brushed under it long ago, because of their ideals. I commend you for a fine post and a valuable novel.

    Reply

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