When I first heard the premise for The Act of Killing it sounded like a terrible idea. I’m still not convinced that it wasn’t. Part of my appreciation of this film is my continued astonishment that it was made at all. There has never been a movie like The Act of Killing. The movie itself and the situations it creates are unique in a profoundly unsettling way.
From both what is stated in the film and from reading interviews with the film’s director, Josh Oppenheimer, it seems that his goals were to have the killers confront their crimes and realize what they had done. Oppenheimer also wanted to contribute to a larger awakening in Indonesia about the cost of allowing these people to not only go unpunished but to be publicly lauded.
It is the first goal that is most questionable. Why engage with these men at all? Why give them further attention and yet another platform for exposure? Why indulge their narcissism? At the end of the film we watch Anwar retch and dry heave as he stumbles around the scene of his crimes but I find no sense of satisfaction or closure. Are we meant to be impressed by his awakening? Are we to praise him for his penitence? It is estimated that Anwar personally killed more than 1000 people with his own hands, mostly through strangulation. Can this level of criminality ever be atoned for or forgiven?
The goal of the film is questionable but the means of achieving the goal are worse. The reenactments that these killers stage clearly traumatize the actors and participants. Not only this but the killers clearly revel in the trauma they induce like vampires relishing blood.
Current psychological models of how the emotional brain or limbic system works point to trauma being timeless. Trauma occurs in a very old and primitive part of the brain. It has no sense of time. If you are bitten by a dog when you were six years old, you may well find that thirty years later a dog can trigger the same fear response as if you were right back at the first occurrence. It used to be thought that re-triggering the trauma in a therapeutic setting could possibly disarm it, but some now believe it only re-traumatizes the subject.
These Indonesian “actors” participating in this reenactment are clearly being triggered and losing sight of what is real and what is memory. In addition the perpetrators of the trauma are also confused. Their rationalizations, and narcissistic delusions make it impossible for them to find their way to reality. What we end up with is a memory, distorted by psychological pathology that is then enacted by people who aren’t sure if they are acting or reliving the past. All the while both groups are creating a film that will serve as yet another even newer memory in lieu of a film. This whole process in turn is being filmed by Oppenheimer who creates yet another layer between us and the now thoroughly twisted reality of the past.
Once reality is lost all that we have left is an ever shifting dream world. At the end of the film we watch the closing scene of the killers reenactment film. Anwar and Herman stand in front of a waterfall. Anwar is dressed like Saint Francis with his hands open to the masses, while Herman is dressed in a bright, blue ballgown and hat. Their victims line up, bloody and disheveled, to thank their murderers for murdering them. Never in the history of film has a situation like this been filmed. We are exploring new territory. When Werner Herzog was shown just a few scenes from The Act of Killing he said, “I looked at it and I immediately knew I had never seen anything like that. I’d never seen anything as powerful as frightening and as surreal as what was on the screen.” Errole Morris said “To call it surreal I don’t think really does it justice. At its heart it’s outrageous which is one of the things that makes it really, really, interesting.”
It’s that last sentence that bothers me. What are we to do with this film? What are witnessing? The camera man just keeps filming while Safit Pardede, surrounded by a still burning set, reminisces with great nostalgia about how he used to rape children. At that point do you not drop the camera and run? What exactly should you do?
Alex Woodson, writing for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs wrote, “There has probably never been a film that bears even the slightest resemblance to The Act of Killing and it is highly improbable we will ever see anything like it again.“ I must agree, and perhaps that is good thing.
There is that sensation we have when someone confronts us and we only think of what to say long after the confrontation is over. Watching The Act of Killing is so shocking so disorienting the viewer doesn’t have time to compose a response. In truth I’ve watched it three times in as many years and I still don’t have a response. What I know is that this film has gone to a place unvisited by cinema as of yet. It reveals something horrible but undeniable about humanity and perhaps for that reason it justifies its existence.
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