The Act of Killing makes no attempt at intellectualizing evil and in fact, does something far more impressive: it brings evil–unquestionable evil: the organized extermination of humans–down to human scale. And far from calling evil banal, director Josh Oppenheimer ultimately associates it with being a human and shows how that all-too-human act of storytelling often justifies some of our most disturbing behavior.
I emphasize this as a feat. After all, the men of this film–outside of their storytelling–are utterly incomprehensible on every level, from ethically to psychologically. These are men who openly and freely talk of their murders, courted by television appearances which exacerbate their bragging rights, and tout themselves as necessary-for-Indonesia gangsters.
Following what is commonly the Thirtieth of September Movement in Indonesia–a failed coup by a renegade organization that resulted in the assassination of six Indonesian Army (IA) generals–the IA led what would soon become a formalized vilification of the country’s Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The PKI was blamed for the coup, then-President Sukarno lost power, and paramilitary gangs began a year of unrelenting murder of all dissidents, from the ethnic Chinese to those just thought to be associated with Communists.
One of those paramilitary leaders, Anwar Congo, is Act‘s focal point. A lanky, older man who, unlike the catatonic facade and robotic emotions of Adolf Eichmann, speaks of his murders with cinematic flair. And that in turn causes Oppenheimer to propose to these “free men”–the term synonymous with gangster in Indonesia–a cinematic idea: Would Anwar and friends be willing, through various short films in various genres, to reenact as they remember their mass executions?
To be on the big screen is an unquestionable desire for them.
After all, cinema played a large role in Anwar and many gangsters’ lives. They had what was unquestionably an obsession with cinema, particularly the violent gangster and western films churning out of Hollywood. And the film consistently lingers around the question of cinema’s role in honing–if not outright driving–their cruelty. But it never answers it more than it shows how cinema archetypes our world in an illusory fashion; we believe what we watch on screen despite the fact that, in reality, Oppenheimer clearly wants to show his audience that there is never really a true good guy or a true bad guy in our world–just humans.
This postmodern conundrum the film showcases–there is no such thing, philosophically, as pure right and wrong–is not something that is easy to ingest and digest.
When Anwar happily reenacts the way in which he choked people with wires, a trick he learned from pervasively surrounding himself with, in his own words, “sadistic Hollywood movies,” is powerfully unsettling when it is removed from the comfort of a cinematic screen and into Anwar’s hands.
The victim, he casually notes, can’t finagle their fingers behind the wire so they ultimately die faster. This form of murder was much easier to cope with because shedding too much blood provided not just a disturbing visual, but an equally disturbing stench.
While he may speak matter-of-factly about this, Anwar is not undisturbed by his past and, in fact, is mentally anguished. Not only noting the consistent use of alcohol, amphetamines and other drugs to escape the reality he willingly created, he talks of consistent nightmares where the dead pervade his sleep. His cohort and friend, Ari Zuldakry, tells Anwar he has a “weak mind” and to go see a neurologist who will give him “neuron vitamins.” This advice comes from the man who simultaneously downsizes international law, calls himself a winner who can create his own definitions of war crimes, and hopes one day that the “Jarkarta Conventions” will rule.
Yet again, one must create the illusion of peace–be it through intoxication or storytelling–to cope with the things these men have done.
Oppenheimer, in a small video online, said he does not wish for his audience to enjoy the film. This isn’t a film to enjoy. He thanks them for watching but ultimately there is nothing enjoyable per se. And this is true–but not necessarily entirely because we are talking about monstrosity, but because Oppenheimer’s focus on Anwar and his cognitive dissonance ultimately leaves us unable to forgive him for his actions but unable to quickly call him a monster.
The Act of Killing is playing for two special screenings only this weekend at the Art Theatre, located at 2025 E. 4th Street. The film will screen at 11AM on both Saturday, August 17, and Sunday, August 18.
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