The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012. UK release June 2013)
To even talk of there being possible detrimental effects associated with watching excessive ‘acts’ of film violence is to open oneself up to ridicule. The terms of the debate over such effects often revolve around simplistic behavioral determinism where one looks for the presence or absence of direct causal links between fictionalized and dramatized ‘acts’ of screened violence and ‘real’ acts of violence. Whilst suggestions of there being direct causal links are often brushed aside with the same casual ease that humans are often seen to be violently dispatched on screen, perhaps the more urgent need is broader and more philosophical. What are the deeper effects of repeatedly depicting the lack of consequences associated with ‘acts’ of brutality, sadism, torture, rape, and murder when presented as spectacular cinematic entertainment. The cool affective enjoyment of spectacular violence towards people within the frictionless coordinates of popular film often outweighs any meaningful moral consideration of them as subjects. Perhaps what should be asked is whether the performative ‘act’ of killing in the dominant mode of popular cinema is essentially contributing to fatal erosion of awareness and belief in the moral ecology of the human. We all become cool detached sniggerers at cinematic spectacles of violence, torture and death.
Consider the late Roger Ebert's review of the stylish post-modern superhero film Kick Ass (2010), which he prefaced with the remark - "Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?" Ebert proceeded to write of the film’s morally reprehensible quality, with its depiction of an 11-year old girl becoming the superhero Hit-Girl. In the film this child superhero is shown being brutalized in the most vicious way (at one point she is hammered around the head by the bad guy), as well as dishing out extreme ultraviolence. The stylish frisson of repeatedly depicting brutal and sadistic violence being done to, or done by, a child takes it into deeply dark moral territory. None more so than in the way it consistently depicts the lack of feeling on her part for any of the killings she engages in, as well the distinct absence of any consequence for her acts. She is shown brutally dispatching dozens of bad guys in a lengthy sequence, stabbing, shooting and kicking them to death. For Ebert this “isn't comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead. And the 11-year old apparently experiences no emotions about this....As I often read on the internet: hahahahaha." The star of the film, Chloe Moretz, who plays Hit-Girl, recently enthused - "am I supposed to be the normal girl who goes to school and has this great life, or am I supposed to kill people and be a vigilante and be someone who fights crime?" For Ebert, Kick Ass is yet another film that regards human beings like empty video-game targets, mere objects to dispatch - "They're dead, you win". As Jim Carrey, star of the much-anticipated sequel, recently realized when he decided to boycott any publicity activity around the film's release in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, "when kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny."
Anwar Congo, the dapper mass-murderer at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer's astonishing documentary The Act of Killing, might well conceive of himself in the same terms as Moretz's Hit-Girl. He too imagines himself to be the vigilante superhero of his own imaginary movie, brutally dispatching the "bad guys" with the same lack of emotion, feeling, conscience or understanding, yet struggling with the quotidian banality of the his everyday life, drinking, dancing, and having a good time. In 1965-6, in the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian military coup, Anwar and his motley collection of sharp-dressing cinema gangsters (who, up to this point in time, had subsisted by scalping cinema tickets to Hollywood movies) were elevated to becoming chief executioners of those deemed to be the enemy - communists. As Anwar says, killing happily, like in the movies. He describes joyfully dancing out of the cinema having just seen an Elvis movie and heading over the road to the small office where they would torture, interrogate and kill their victims. To date there has been no reckoning for the barbarism of the past simply because so many of the perpetrators remain in political power. As one of Anwar’s former colleagues says, the truth is written by winners.
For this film, which took nearly a decade to realize, Oppenheimer decided to concentrate his attention on providing a voice for the perpetrators, who are only too happy to brag of their brutal ‘acts’ of genocide, rather than their victims. Anwar and his fellow gangsters Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, along with the anti-communist paramilitary organization The Pancasila Youth, swagger on-screen like a nightmare of indulged children who see the world only in terms of the strong and the weak, the moneyed and the poor, the useful and the useless. They are clearly selfish and violent narcissists. However, this is no orthodox documentary that sets out to merely record their stories of the past. No camera records the discursive 'truth' of past events as they are spoken. Rather, Oppenheimer has them creatively recreate and re-present the past through their own efforts at cinematic reenactments. He hands them the camera and encourages them to wield it as a mirror on themselves and their actions.
The Act of Killing employs the classic film within a film structure, which provides a powerful insight into the connections between a dominant cinematic reality where killing is without consequence and the minds of real sadistic killers which it has shaped. This all seems so horribly appropriate. As things unfold it becomes clear that they had all conceived of themselves as characters in a Hollywood movie, as a patchwork of noir-gangsters, cowboys a la John Wayne, and dancers and singers from an Elvis movie, as they carried out the sadistic torture and execution of communist suspects. Theirs was a form of killing without feeling and without consequence, just like in the movies. The empty nature of their human targets is only underscored by an interview with a newspaper editor responsible for naming communist suspects, who concedes that they fabricated all of the evidence, and just arbitrarily denounced people for being communists. Indeed, Anwar still seems in the grip of a particularly cretinous anti-Communist propaganda film made by the military in the early 1960's which depicts communists as brutal and monstrous sadists. For him this film, together with Hollywood films, inspired his own sadistic acts of killing, and continues to justify his own actions nearly fifty years later. He is hopelessly captivated by the coordinates of film, and appears as somebody who has completely internalized the cinematic grammar where the absence of moral consequence to the act of killing rules supreme. Once identified as communists he treated his victims as cinematic avatars, bad guys to be dispatched happily with a certain cinematic flourish and jouissance. There seems no better way to capture some kind of 'truth' of this than, yes, to have them make an actual movie depicting what they did. For Oppenheimer this is a 'documentary of the imagination'. The brutal reality of the past in the minds of these men appears as some kind of sustained cinematic fiction, and Oppenheimer's genius is to have them create a cinematic externalization of that fiction. In the process this cinematic expression alchemically transmutes into a dark 'reality' for the first time.
The cast of emotionally retarded bullies, narcissistic thugs, rapists, extortionists and murderers (who repeatedly refer to themselves as gangsters and free men), are shown casting for their movie in the streets of Medan in Northern Sumatra. As work begins on their film they proceed to stage straightforward representations of interrogation, torture and execution of communist suspects (including a truly horrific re-staging of the burning of a village of communist suspects), but this soon transforms into bizarre and dreamlike recreations in which Anwar casts himself as his own victim, being interrogated by a crazed cross-dressing psychopath. As they descend into the hellish territory of their own cinematic imagination the film becomes more an attempt to capture their past actions through inhabiting the Hollywood genres they admire and wish to see themselves depicted through. The full fury of their cinematic narcissism is unleashed. So we have Anwar deciding to recreate the slow execution of a communist suspect in the Sumatran jungle by dressing in full Western cowboy outfit, killing happily like John Wayne. In another scene the decapitated head of Anwar is tormented by a cross-dressing sadist (played by his friend Herman), who proceeds to cut off the penis from Anwar’s headless corpse and rub it into his face. There are bizarre musical scenes set to the soundtrack of Born Free, with glamorous dancing girls and the singing ghosts of dead communists thanking their executioners for releasing their souls to heaven. Any temptation to laugh along with all of this grotesque surrealism is more than countered by the knowledge that what is being enacted actually happened, and that the acts depicted are being recreated by those who originally carried them out. Unusually, you also gain an insight into their very peculiar perspective upon the acts as they recreate them, becoming a witness to a slow descent into the void where perverse fantasies of sadism and murder abound. It is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing experiences.
The way Oppenheimer depicts the increasingly unhinged nature of the film Anwar and his colleagues are making is particularly acute. It is significant that it quickly begins to bear no relation to their own explicit concerns to record the 'truth' of the past so that others can understand and appreciate their actions as patriotic, heroic and noble. At one point during filming they are offered a tangibly true story from a perspective outside of their own - a man acting as one of their victims under interrogation (one of Anwar's neighbors) tells them of his stepfather who was taken away and murdered in the middle of the night for being Chinese (i.e. communist). They reject his story and insist that they have enough of their own already. Clearly there has been a shift away from staging recreations in order to document the past, in favour of an almost total immersion into the realm of narcissistic fantasy. From here on they begin to film ever more surreal and grotesque reenactments of their acts of killing, beginning with bizarre recreations of their own fantasies, nightmares and memories by framing them within the cinematic genres that have inspired them. Any straightforward telling of the 'truth' disappears in favour of a different kind of truth, one rarely captured by documentary films - a truth of the imagination. In this case it is a truth of sadistically murderous imagination. In this regard it begins to resemble the documentary work of Werner Herzog (who was an executive producer attached to the film). As with Herzog’s films, by unhinging itself from the straightforward documentation of 'truth', the reality of the historical events surrounding the mass extermination (up to two and a half million people), Oppenheimer’s film flows deeper into the stream of the darkest realms of imagination to uncover what Herzog has termed ‘ecstatic truth’. This is a truth that cannot be empirically accounted for cinematically, but is revealed through a form of filmic poetry. The affect of this is to bring us closer than many other films to the luminous darkness of human cruelty.
Ebert’s question resounds in the mind at the conclusion of the film; shall I have feelings or should this film make me remain cool? Anwar, having endured acting the part of being interrogated and garroted is shaken and brought to a limit of his endurance. This becomes evident as he watches the video footage on his television at home, and he expresses his view to Oppenheimer that for the first time he was really able to experience what his victims went through in their last moments. Oppenheimer replies that this is not true, it was much worse for his victims as they knew they were really going to die. The hermetic sealed vacuum of Anwar’s cinematic imagination appears to be undone in this simple moment. The realization of this ‘reality’ comes to dawn upon his soul, and is captured on his face. Later when he revisits the site where he carried out hundreds of executions this realization seems heavy upon his mind, and in a truly astonishing sequence he involuntarily vomits repeatedly. The sound and sight of Anwar trying to exorcise the bile of what he has done from his body is one of the most haunting things ever captured on film. There is a deep sadness in the sight of what little humanity Anwar has left trying to escape from his body, trying to vomit itself out. And through this deep sadness comes the concrete memorial to the countless voiceless victims of this specific brutal period in Indonesia’s history. A minor historical reckoning. Possibly because it is so anchored into the specific events of Indonesia in 1965-6, but not tied to exhaustively accounting for them, the film is able to ambitiously transcend this specificity and project us into broader realms where the question of the moral ecology of the human and the impact of film has upon it can be asked.
For all of popular cinema’s ambivalent success in creating the entertaining and consequence-free spectacle of the act of killing, it is with films such as Oppenheimer’s that film’s alternative capacity for opening up an affectively empathic space becomes apparent. The capacity for film to conjure up reflexive acts of conscience from the darkest abyss of acts of killing offers a possible filmic antidote to the toxic malaise of mainstream films. Film is revealed as being as much about empathic immersion, as it is in immersion in consequence-free spectacles of cruelty and killing. Nursed and comforted by the all-pervasive cinematic grammar of Kick Ass, Hostel, The Human Centipede, Inglorious Basterds, RED, etc., Oppenheimer’s film serves to remind us of the presence of the cinematically transgressed thresholds, that there are edges and consequences to killing, both personal and social. Quite rightly the film places us back into a state of deep discomfort over spectacles of killing happily, whether it is a child superhero killing bad guys happily or the spectacles of mass-killing indulged in by this year’s latest gangster movie or summer blockbuster. ‘LOL’ and ‘hahahahahaha’ have become replaced with the echoes of Anwar’s tortuous vomiting.
Darren Ambrose is a Senior Lecturer in Film Theory at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Film, Nihilism & the Restoration of Belief (Zero Books, 2013) which will be published on October 25th 2013.