“Being in Indonesia today is like being in Germany fifty years after the Second World War and finding out that the Nazis were still in power,” said Joshua Oppenheimer in a post-screening talk for his film “The Act of Killing”. Among other horrifying implications is a question about writing history: how do “victors” represent themselves and their deeds? This opens onto aesthetic questions: how does it look?
Anyone that has seen the chilling beauty of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” or “Triumph of the Will” has a sense of what the Nazi’s story would look like, because, as one of the murderers in The Act of Killing says plainly, “war crimes are defined by the winners.” It is the winners that make the movies too.
Oppenheimer began working with Indonesian families traumatized by a military dictatorship that violently came to power in the mid 1960s and remains in control of the country. The revolution was achieved by sending paramilitary death squads to kill tens of thousands of accused “communists”— a series human rights violations never openly recognized or discussed to this day within Indonesia. Every time Oppenheimer would begin to film, to tell their stories, the government would come and shut it down within hours, impounding equipment. Eventually Oppenheimer decided on another approach: interview the paramilitary gangsters who carried out the atrocities.
These killers, now old men, are thought of as national heroes and happy to brag. When they wanted to show what they did and where, he offered to film their recreations however they liked. The resulting movie sutures together surreal allegorical scenes crafted by the gangsters, behind the scenes footages of the planning and filming of those scenes, and extensive interviews with the men.
The central figure becomes a charming old man Anwar Congo, who was a much feared and ruthless killer. We see him on a secluded roof where he killed many people, explaining that using a wire around the neck was best because there was less blood than hacking with a machete. He re-enacts exactly how he executed people there, doing a little dance and talking about how much he loved American gangster movies. While it doesn’t seem so at first, through these conversations and watching the reenactments it becomes clear that Anwar is deeply haunted by the things he’s done—he can’t sleep. The final shot of the scene finds Anwar again on the killing roof throwing up at the thought. To show that the “winners” could be this effected, this emotionally and psychologically damaged, by the events of fifty years ago is a powerful message about the human stakes of these of acts. The most clear statement on the importance of this film for the Indonesia people comes from the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia: “If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than The Act of Killing.”
The Act of Killing is one of those works are art that shows us how relevant, how utterly necessary art can be. Better than anything I can think of it shows how closely knit questions of politics and aesthetic are, bound in lived cycles of performance and reperformance.
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-Contributed by Jarrett Earnest