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Lessons from Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012)

November 19, 2014

Robert Shaw Bridges  

When we take up the mantle of cultural critique, what do we expect is the result? This is a question that philosophers and historians have long debated, and will likely remain unsettled until history provides us with an answer, sometimes one soaked in blood. From 1965-66, Indonesia erupted when a failed coup d’état gave way to the violent purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) by paramilitary youth organizations, among them the Pancasila Youth. After the establishment of the New Order in Indonesia under the military dictatorship of Suharto, participants in these mass killings were celebrated as heroes, and the murders of close to 500,000 Indonesians became officially sanctioned acts in wartime. With the resignation of Suharto in 1998 and his death ten years later, the people have become more receptive to discourse over the narrative. In 2012, evidence for this openness received international acclaim with the release of the documentary film The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer. The film received the 2014 BAFTA award for best documentary among other awards and nominations, and through underground channels has reached millions of Indonesians. The story is shocking: a satirical representation of the spectacle of death, in which the killers become the narrators. The film’s protagonist is the former movie theater gangster Anwar Congo who claims to have personally killed 1,000 people in the purge. Throughout the film, the Anwar and his compatriots from the ol’ days are challenged to reenact their memories of carnage to the tune of their favorite Hollywood blockbusters.

Whether dressed as film noire gangsters or wearing a cowboy hat and pretending to be John Wayne, these seemingly unrepentant killers are asked to convey their crimes against humanity to a worldwide audience. The shocking message these erstwhile movie-stars deliver until the end is eerily reminiscent of that chilling maxim that motivated the Third Reich, “Might Makes Right.” The viewer is made aware throughout the film of the clear continuities between these fascist psychologies separated by time and space, familiar to all readers of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies. Several leaders of the paramilitary group who decades ago were burning homes and dumping bodies in the rivers of the Indonesian tropics, were filmed sharing a laugh or a snide comment about a woman’s dress or jovially talking about the ecstasy that comes with raping their victims. The film also makes clear that the dominant historical narrative in Indonesia condones this social praise of past acts of violence. Politicians and leaders of the paramilitary youth told them they were not just gangsters, but that they were “free men” who did a great service to their country. The fact that they were able to commit murder with impunity, as one former paramilitary executioner exclaimed, was proof that their crimes were sanctioned, and by extension justified. If the State did not provide them with enough damning propaganda to vindicate their consciences, Anwar and his friends found ways to persuade themselves of their own innocence. “They have to accept it,” said Safit Pardede, one of Anwar’s accomplices, “Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works: I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

Anwar, however, was not so lucky. Toward the end of the film, while watching the footage of his own reenacted scenes of carnage, Anwar shows signs of disturbance, of genuine disgust at his and his friends’ glorification of violence. At one point, he even becomes physically ill at the sight where he tied his victims to a pole and strangled his them with a metal wire. When asked by Oppenheimer how he felt after playing the victim of one of his crimes, he responds, “But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned.” As a viewer, these moments give us hope that even if these men were ruthless killers, somehow they can regain their humanity. If they only realize what they did was wrong, we believe they are redeemable. This may be true. But is it the only lesson we should take away from Oppenheimer’s film? Perhaps these moments undermine the very message that should resonate with us. Ordinary people, who displayed no outward signs of psychosis, were capable of committing heinous crimes, and experienced no dissonance between their violent acts and their value system. They deluded themselves and were deluded by their social and political institutions into believing what they did was right, and today, they consciously suppress their suffering because their society approved their behavior, or perhaps they believe society forgave them for it. Regardless, Pardede reminds the viewer, the carnage has ended and the history is written and the victims just “have to accept it.”

Should we seek to redeem the killers? Or should we understand our very human capacity for and conditioning to violence? A similar phenomenon occurs in what many students on college campuses are now calling “rape cultures.” Fascism is not just an ideology; it is a state of mind, and an aesthetic that saturates culture at multiple levels. Certainly as political actors, the dominant narratives do not always sway us, nor do we accept the critique that we are all susceptible to the kind of violent ideologies that fed the Nazi regime in the thirties, or the state-sanctioned genocide in Rwanda. Through films like The Act of Killing, we seek to reconcile the humanity of the killers like Anwar with our own concept of humanity. We try to vindicate the part of them that we recognize and love in ourselves, rather than condemn the cultural mores that led to their downfall. Yet it may have been necessary to show the audience Anwar’s humanity to truly equate us with the madness of the social and cultural vectors that ultimately gave him the license to kill. What audiences should recognize is these men did not commit murder in a vacuum. There were contributive vectors, ways of fetishizing violence that were sanctioned, violence that many students in the United States believe is still sanctioned in our society, whether it is celebrated in public or reveled in behind a closed bedroom door.

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