The killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting and engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank. Military officers would even task soldiers with keeping curious onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn’t be disturbed. – Joshua Oppenheimer
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In his essay The Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes between history and poetry, arguing that the former “describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be” (1464). The arts, although based upon imitation which might distance us from an objective access to reality, are nevertheless of “more philosophic and of graver import” (1464) because they represent reality in ways that appeal to our aesthetic and moral imaginations. By describing how a thing or an event “might be,” art broadens our conceptual grasp of history by opening up sites of discourses that allow for reinterpretation and reintegration within our shared understanding of the past. What is implied in this paradigm is the notion that all access to the past is mediated by texts and the discourses surrounding them that exist in dialectical tension: the philosopher Dominick La Capra has argued that the past “arrives” to us “in the form of texts and textualized remainders – memories, reports, published writings, archives, monuments” (128), and each of these enriches and complicates our hermeneutical horizons by decentralizing any single “authoritative” account of an event. I would like to extend this insight by suggesting that the central role that artistic texts can play in an interpretative community sensitive toward its collective history is allowing for a reevaluation of the roles its members have played, and how the aesthetic experience can shape a renewed understanding of historical responsibility. By analyzing key moments from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Act of Killing (2012), this article will explore how the artistic medium of film allows for a personal reassessment of guilt on the part of men responsible for the mass killings of suspected communists in Indonesia in the years 1965-66. Through direct participation in the acting and directing of a film recounting their brutal roles in the killings, the gangsters’ understandings of the impact of their actions are profoundly shaped in a way that would be impossible without the active involvement of the spectator and actor in the process of aesthetic creation. In this way, film functions as a lens through which we can self-reflexively explore the significance of history and historical responsibility by re-presenting it artistically as a question and a challenge to any easy absorption of preestablished meaning.
The Act of Killing opens with a somber shot of the sea at night, with the moon illuminating the flow of the currents. It takes as its epigraph Voltaire’s ironic aphorism that “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets,” exposing the moral hypocrisy surrounding the legitimization of murder, which will be the main concern of the film. Recalling the opening of Conrad’s seminal novella Heart of Darkness, where a group of seamen stare at the sea while recounting their grim encounters in colonial Africa, the film plunges the viewer into a similar nightmarish vision of evil as told by Anwar Congo, a past leader of Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth movement, which had a pivotal role to play in the events surrounding the rise to power of Suharto in 1965. Indeed, the film explains that due to the military coup that resulted, a massive purge of communists ensued. In the year that followed, over one million people suspected of being communists were brutally murdered. To effect this, the military made use of paramilitary forces like the Pancasila Youth movement and gangsters to carry out the killings. What becomes immediately apparent is Oppenheimer’s focus on how the perpetrators of these atrocities were able to justify their actions with shocking impunity. According to Oppenheimer:
Ironically, we faced the greatest danger when filming survivors [of the massacres]. For instance, when we tried to film a scene in which former political prisoners rehearsed a Javanese ballad about their time in the concentration camps … we were interrupted by police seeking to arrest us.
But the killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting and engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank. Military officers would even task soldiers with keeping curious onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn’t be disturbed.
It is this performative and systematic aspect of violence that Oppenheimer focalizes through Anwar, who originally sold movie theatre tickets on the black market but who eventually became one of the lead executioners in North Sumatra. When asked by Oppenheimer to demonstrate how he killed people using a wire in an early part of the film, Anwar gleefully obliges, twisting a wire around the neck of another actor and showing how he would then proceed to choke the victim, killing him in an efficient manner. The violent reenactment becomes all the more shocking when the viewer notices the eagerness with which the murderers performed their actions before the camera. Indeed, as Anwar puts it, their actions in reality were far more brutal than those they performed for the “film.” The medium of film initially becomes a way in which the theatricality of violence can be staged for the consumption of those still in power and who have not yet been held accountable for their crimes. One of the most striking segments of the film happens during a TV talk show about the film Anwar is involved in. When talking about the film and about the possibility that the families of the victims might seek revenge after watching it, Anwar proudly proclaims that there would be no chance of that because they would exterminate them all, after which the audience bursts into rapturous applause. The possibility of reassessment of the past and historical responsibility is thus precluded when the very spectacle of violence obviates ethical considerations as to its consequences. The cinema becomes a site where they can once again “act out” their atrocities and be celebrated for it. Unfortunately, the inverse also holds true: their killings were for them “cinematic performances.” Anwar thus reveals how, during the interrogations and murders, he consciously modeled himself after cinematic “gangsters” played by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. All these moments powerfully dramatize what Oppenheimer has termed a “profound failure of the imagination,” which betokens a failure to confront the effects of the violent past on the present and how society, in its institutions and state apparatuses, still lives off the inability to effect proper resolution.
However, as the film they are making progresses, there is a growing recognition that the medium can challenge preconceived notions of guilt and responsibility. Oppenheimer focalizes this through Adi, a fellow gangster who has agreed to act in the film with Anwar. As they film an interrogation scene intentionally shot through the cinematic genre of the gangster movie, Adi raises an important reservation about the reception of their film. He objects that if the film gets released, people will draw the conclusion that it is they, and not the communists, who were violent. Oppenheimer foregrounds this moment as a crucial one in the film due to Adi’s recognition that film has the potential to subvert their ostensible project to glorify their past actions, presenting the brutality of their violence as it really was. For the perpetrators of violence, the exercise of acting out their past provides an opportunity through which they can reassess the humanity of their actions. It is here that film becomes a powerful tool through which the significance of the past can be reevaluated and renegotiated in the lives of people who become actors on the historical stage. However, this awareness becomes too much for Adi, and he does not participate in the rest of the filming. Interestingly, Oppenheimer follows this moment with an interview with Adi while he is driving, where the director asks him about answering for his crimes against humanity in the international court at The Hague. Adi’s nonchalant response that he does not feel any guilt since “history is written by the victors” here signals a closing up of his moral imagination through ideology. His distancing himself from the film ironically suggests how participation in it opens up a space for questioning and the possibility of assuming historical responsibility for his actions. It is not inconceivable to conclude that by the end of the film, Adi is somewhat changed by his experiences: as he and his family are filmed shopping at a mall, Adi’s voiceover details the atrocities that he and his fellow gangsters committed, providing a striking juxtaposition between his inhumanity and the banality of his current lifestyle. At the end of his speech, he once again reiterates that he does not feel guilty, but says that he might be convincing himself of this in order to feel better, and in order not to suffer the torments of the guilty. We might say that Adi’s change in the course of the film has been from someone fully confident in the ideological import of the film he is participating in, to someone whose experiences in filming leave him with a sense of guilt he barely manages to repress and conceal.
It is Anwar, however, who goes through an almost transformative process by participating in acting and directing the film, playing both perpetrator and victim. As the genres of the film being shot move from gangster movie to western and horror, the lines between fiction, reality, and dreams become blurred. Anwar frequently confesses that he has nightmares over the killings he committed, elaborating that in them the eyes of his victims gaze back at him. In a sequence from the inset film that could conceivably play out like one of his nightmares, the ghost of one of Anwar’s victims, dressed in an outlandish costume and dripping with blood, returns to seek revenge on Anwar and executes it in an unrealistically bloody fashion. What is interesting to note here is the fact that Anwar is playing himself in the sequence. Through the staging of one of Anwar’s nightmares, fiction and reality intertwine, unsettling him in the process. Indeed, the film starts to move away from a realistic reenactment of historical events toward an uncanny dramatization of the psychological landscape of the characters and people these characters are based on. What Anwar is forced to confront in the film are his own repressed fears, and how violence has ineradicably scarred him. As Oppenheimer focuses the camera on Anwar’s features as he grows increasingly reticent and hesitant during the process of filming, he evokes a complex moral response in the viewer: appalled as we are with Anwar’s crimes, we identify with his inward struggle to, for the first time, come to terms with what he had done. The staging and screening of the past thus become not a glorification and justification of one’s own actions, but a lens through which important questions may be asked and greater self-awareness reached.
This growth of Anwar’s consciousness culminates in a crucial segment of the film, where Oppenheimer screens the footage of the interrogation scene to Anwar, where he plays the victim about to be questioned and killed. As Anwar watches the footage, Oppenheimer’s camera focuses on Anwar’s reaction as it unfolds. In a powerful moment of revelation, Anwar reveals his shock and horror toward his actions. He says that he finally feels what the victim of the interrogation feels: a complete loss of dignity, followed by the abject terror of death and the inevitability of it. Through watching a dramatization of the scene, Anwar is able to experience the emotions of the other as it is being acted and as it affects him as a viewer, thereby provoking a moral response to the situation. The process of acting allowed Anwar to access the subjectivity of another person as if it were his own, and clarity of insight as to the inhumanity of his past actions. Oppenheimer strikingly punctuates Anwar’s moment of illumination by filming him revisiting the site of his killings. Once there, Anwar once again tries to describe his method of killing, but finds he cannot. Overcome with disgust, he retches twice, as if the painful memories of the place now become too dark to bear. One might argue here that Anwar achieves a small measure of redemption because he is finally able to face the full monstrosity of what he and his fellow gangsters have done. In the end, as Reiff notes in his review of the film, Anwar is “a figure of moral reckoning, one who, when confronted with a mediated set of memories, begins to finally grapple with his blood-soaked history” (25).
This essay has argued that an artistic rendering of the past, far from being just an “objective” reenactment of it, has the potential to revise our historical understanding of its significance and the meaning of our roles in it. I draw upon the work of the philosopher Mikel Dufrenne, who argues that the world that the aesthetic object expresses is similar to, yet fundamentally different from, the real world. Dufrenne distinguishes between the represented world (the world of objective space and time) and the expressed world in order to emphasize how the work of art organizes its own elements so that it communicates meaning. In order to express the various levels of signification, “the aesthetic object is able to be the source of its own time and space” (161). The work of art creates the conditions for its unique form of expression; its coordinates allow meaning to emerge. Dufrenne highlights how the work of art opens up a world that need not be, as Plato argues, a deficient copy of the objective world. Instead, the aesthetic object absorbs the material of the objective world and re-presents it, giving “a new countenance” (165) to objects and people.
It is thus this capacity of the work of art that allows it to disrupt our conventional understanding of the world and our place within it. The Act of Killing powerfully demonstrates Dufrenne’s logic by dramatizing moments when film explodes the boundaries between fiction and reality by disturbing our absorption in the latter. Perhaps the most striking example of this is a segment where Anwar and his colleagues reenact the pillaging and destruction of a kampong (a hamlet or village). During the filming, huts are burned, male actors savagely berate each other, and women and children actors are put through palpable amounts of “distress” in the process. However, once the filming (and thus “fiction”) ends, Oppenheimer shows how the women and children are still visibly shaken by the affair as if it had really happened to them. The horror of violence bursts through the artistic boundaries of the film, confronting actors and viewers as if it were a wound yet to be healed. Reiff comments on the film’s insight:
Oppenheimer seems to indicate [that] there is no thin line between the historical reenactment and the original malicious deed. The tears of shell-shocked children attest to the fact that the violent deeds of the past remain visceral, immediate and reprehensible even when ‘acted,’ and that Indonesia’s bloody history is present both in the reenactment and in the living men carrying it out. (25)
If art (and film) is indeed vital to a consideration of history, then it is so because it presents the questions and issues of the past as present, offering us new ways through which the burden and injustice of the past can be dealt with more humanely. Anwar’s tentative awakening thus functions as a metaphor for all of us (re)discovering our humanity through the involvement of the subject in the process of artistic creation and the aesthetic experience. It is hoped that a social awakening might follow from this, thereby starting the possibility of atonement and redress for the dark years 1965-66 in Indonesia’s history.
Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.
Dufrenne, Mikel. “The World of the Aesthetic Object” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Trans. Edward S. Casey et al. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. London: Routledge, 2011, 153-169.
La Capra, Dominick. History and Criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Oppenheimer, Joshua. The Act of Killing. DVD. Final Cut for Real APS, Piraya Film AS and Novaya Zemlya LTD, 2012.
Reiff, Michael. “The Act of Killing directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (review).” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal 44.1 (2014): 24-7.
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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.