What does it mean to participate in a mass killing and how does one live with those acts? Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing 2012 film, The Act of Killing explores these questions by focusing on a small group of mass murderers forty-five years after their participation in the 1965 Indonesian anti-communist purges that resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 and one million people. The director invited the killers who took part in the mass murder to reenact their roles in assorted “films within the film”. These creations show the murderers’ attempts to reconcile “unspeakable horrors” with the “victor’s history” of a heroic triumph over “communism:” a narrative celebrated by many of those who participated in the killings who still occupy key political positions (ICA 2013: 22:00). Oppenheimer deftly probes the relationships among the individuals he tracked along three separate threads: memories of their murderous acts, performances reenacting those episodes and the stories they told themselves, to rationalize and justify those deeds. Yet these concerns also hint at an uncomfortable truth: all human beings are implicated in the production of history. This essay first describes Oppenheimer’s exploration of how the killers currently cope with their past heinous acts and then segues to examine several wider implications of this acclaimed documentary.
Each individual is a participant in the present, but just as crucially, each of us is also involved in the reification of today’s dominant narratives when we accept, remain complicit in, and do not challenge longstanding assumptions or the claims upon which they are constructed (Grovogui 2013; Landsberg 2004; Kirschenblat-Gimblett 1995). This is not to suggest occurrences in the past can be changed, but rather that dominant historical narratives-particularly of the triumphal variety-evolve in a society at a particular moment and crystallize over time. Nonetheless, that frame can be considered through different perspectives that challenge the hegemonic narrative it represents. Doing so may highlight the fact that widely accepted frames of past events may not be benign, but may instead be perpetuating oppression or injustice of varying sorts.
Postcolonial scholars and oral historians offer two slightly different views on “recovering” histories marginalized by dominant social imaginaries. Postcolonial scholars cultivate counter-narratives to challenge hegemonic or established histories (see Said 1979, Grovogui, 2013, Gregory 2004; Abu-El Haj 2001) while some oral historians explicitly seek out marginalized or “subaltern” perspectives to encourage more nuanced social narratives (Gluck 1977; Portelli 1991; Cline 2006; Thomson 2006). Neither of these approaches quite fits what Oppenheimer undertook in The Act of Killing. The director focused on the killers’ intoxicated boasting of their past horrific acts, their animated imagined reenactments of their crimes and the consequences of those actions that arose for each as they began to wrestle with the deep contradictions between their past behavior and the rationalizations they had long provided for it. The Act of Killing allowed the killers space to confront the ways their active participation in the Indonesian genocide affected them personally, their victims and their families, Indonesian society and, indeed, all of humankind.
Oppenheimer’s focus on the murderers’ testimony and imagination challenges extant assumptions concerning the production of history and research into past crimes. The film’s concentrated attention on the killers turns Wieviorka’s (2006) notion of the “era of the witness” -the rise of individualized victim testimony to explore wider narratives-on its head. This shift does not necessarily suggest a lack of sympathy with the victims and their families, but it does engender greater empathy for the long-term consequences of their actions for the murderers. Similarly, the killer-centric approach also challenges what Weizman (2014) has referred to as the “forensic turn” in research on past mass killings- the shift in evidence investigations from Wieviorka’s “testimony” of victims (subjects) of trauma to consideration of both individual accounts and the interpretation of material remains, including buildings, as sensors of violence. Oppenheimer lingers on the perpetrators’ provocative, gut-wrenching displays of delusion and boasting of horrific acts less to highlight their inhumanity, although this is the instinctual viewer reaction, but rather, to illuminate the “cracks in their façade that the genocide was heroic” (7th Avenue Project). For Oppenheimer, these fissures are an invitation to reflect on the humanity of the killers and their coping mechanisms with past deeds. These momentary breaks in their long-held rationalizing defenses revealed both how these individuals had shielded themselves from their past acts, while also signaling the potential for reflection-based transformative change (7th Ave. Project). In this sense, The Act of Killing opens space to recognize the agonizing effects of these acts for the perpetrators, as well as the stories they tell themselves to cope with killing on a mass scale.
The documentary focuses closely on one killer in particular, Anwar Congo, who had been a petty gangster when the genocide erupted, but became one of its leaders and the reputed killer of 1,000 individuals. Viewers become fellow travelers with him as he plunges into a fever dream of escapism in his self-produced reflection in his “film within the film.” Oppenheimer juxtaposes the delusional rehearsals of elaborate scenes with Congo’s moments of personal reflection. Audiences witness his restless nights, listen to him explain karma on a dock in darkness, watch his cha-cha dance with wire around his neck immediately after demonstrating how he killed hundreds of victims using such wire, view him drinking beer and singing American song classics with friends, observe him as he receives a medal from former victims in a scene from his kitschy film production and ultimately serve as witnesses as he retches repeatedly during an agonizing scene in which he appears to experience an autonomic response to reckoning with the import of his past actions. While some argue Congo was acting in this scene, Oppenheimer has contended that it represented his spontaneous response to his reflections on the horrors he had committed (Film Ireland 2014: 23:01-23:10). Nevertheless, Congo’s confrontation in this scene with his responsibility for hundreds of atrocities hinted at the pain embedded beneath the layers of self-pity, rationalization and delusion he had constructed in the decades since the genocide.
Oppenheimer has suggested that he sought to show that “we (human beings) are our past” (Film Ireland 2014). That is “We live [the present] in memory and through different states of time (7th Avenue Project 2015).” Therefore, “if our past lives on in us, it suggests that [the] trauma [of] that past also lives on in a painful way (Ibid.).” The film focuses on the memory, performances and “stories we tell ourselves” to suggest how the trauma of his genocidal past shaped Congo and other killers. The persistent and progressive bubbling up of the long-suppressed trauma associated with his past murders serves as the central defining force in the film.
Congo, like all of the killers Oppenheimer filmed, at first openly boasted about his past deeds. He proudly demonstrated the way he used wire to kill more efficiently and with less blood than other means. In a later interview, Oppenheimer observed that such boasting was not an act of pride, but rather a form of escapism from the horrible acts he (and others) had committed (Apple, Inc. 2013: 13:08). As the film progresses the audience slowly comprehends how individuals can use memory to shield themselves from a self-reckoning for their deeds. Landsberg (2004) has characterized this escapism as evidence of a negotiation between the past and the present. It is this phenomenon, as revealed by Congo especially, that is the central puzzle for the audience in the documentary.
Congo’s boasting is presented in various ways as he describes his past acts in the documentary’s “films within the film.” Viewers encounter this aspect of his persona in the staged pogrom of a village by Panchisila Youth, one of the paramilitary groups (which still exist in Indonesia) with which Congo and his colleagues collaborated. Oppenheimer filmed this organization’s current rallies as well as additional elaborate reenactments of killings as part of his protagonist’s film noir production. Finally, the director showcased an elaborate dance sequence and celebration of Congo’s murders in which two victims symbolically offered him a medal and thanked him for killing them beneath a majestic waterfall. The Act of Killing focuses on the gaps in Congo’s performative subterfuges to amplify the disconnects present in each. Oppenheimer’s camera follows unenthusiastic dancing at the Panchisila Youth rally, revels in the stunning beauty of the landscape in the dance sequence in which Congo receives a medal and chronicles the killer’s moments of confusion and contemplation after playing the role of a victim in his film within the film.
Throughout, these memories and performances are underpinned by the collective “stories we tell ourselves,” through the eyes of the murderers. Indeed, various killers and current members of Panchisila Youth describe the meaning and etymology of the word for gangster, “preman,” derived from the Dutch version of “Free man,” in the film. This refrain suggests a kind of independence and honor associated with devotion to a purpose as a rationale for the genocide (preventing and/or defeating “communism”), despite the fact many of those who participated in the mass killings actually murdered for status, money and power (Film Ireland 2014). Indeed, perhaps the most significant “story” to which the perpetrators clung in the film is the notion that all of the victims in the genocide were communists. Nonetheless, the killers also recounted that, anyone in a union or who crossed them was also liable to be murdered, thereby undermining their own primary rationalization for their acts (Vice Podcast 034 2014)
While the audience joins Congo and his accomplices as fellow travelers on his journey of reflection, the end of the film points to two difficult passages yet to come. First, the people of Indonesia have yet to embark fully on a process of reconciliation among those affected by the genocide. The Act of Killing screenings in Indonesia and around the world opened space for discussions of the 1965-1966 anticommunist purges, which had theretofore simply not occurred. The topic is now openly considered today, but the government has not issued a formal apology to those who lost loved ones in the mass killings (ICA London 2013).
In addition to this increasing recognition of what actually occurred and dialogue concerning it in Indonesia, the documentary’s audience also confronts a need to recognize its own complicity in the reification of the anti-communist narrative and support for the oppressive power structure that has supported that “explanation” since the genocide occurred. As Oppenheimer has observed,
[the film] holds up a dark mirror first to Anwar, then to Indonesian society as a whole, and I hope, by spending this time with Anwar, that we will see ourselves in that dark mirror, too. Both as individuals and as a society that depend, for every single article of clothing that we are wearing, for everything that I’m touching right now, depends on men like Anwar to enforce conditions of cruelty everywhere that everything we buy is produced (Film Ireland 2014: 25:30-25:06).
While the implications of this remark are not explored in the film, Oppenheimer’s comment extends Congo’s reckoning to all human beings. The Act of Killing urges its viewers to acknowledge both the systems of injustice that human beings construct and the narratives they employ to perpetuate and legitimate those structures. In other words, Congo’s escapism, as revealed in his strangely carnival-like film within a film’s treatment of his past unspeakable acts, resonates with our own willing roles in acceding to such violence, not as direct participants perhaps, but as indirect beneficiaries of the systems upon which Congo’s actions-and hundreds of others like him in Indonesia and beyond-are too often predicated.
7th Avenue Project (2 Aug 2015). Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer: Breaking the Silence on Genocide. Accessed on 9/19/2016 at: http://7thavenueproject.com/post/126469778005/joshua-oppenheimer-the-look-of-silence
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Apple, Inc. (2013). The Act of Killing: Meet the Filmmaker. [Available on iTunes.]
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Vice Podcast (28 Feb 2014). Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Act of Killing’: The Vice Podcast 034, Vice News. Accessed on 9/19/2016 at: http://www.vice.com/print/the-vice-podcast-joshua-oppenheimer-on-the-act-of-killing
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Rob Flahive is a first-year ASPECT student interested in the relationship between modernist movement architecture/urban planning and decolonization processes, the spatial and political implications of UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription and the logistical infrastructure necessary for the use of military violence. He has an enduring curiosity in how individuals intersect with wider global processes. Importantly, this inclination contributed to his aspiration to teach at the university level. He holds an MA in Political Studies from American University in Beirut and a BA in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. He finds it hard to imagine life without fall leaves, espresso, pizza (or some bread/cheese combo) or Fairouz.