The Act of Killing is a documentary from 2012 about the Indonesian death squads.
The first thing I need to say is that it was amazing. I will be writing about many things that happen, but I don't feel that they are spoilers, because viewing would not be spoiled. It is not knowing what happens, but seeing how it feels for those involved. Viewing is an intense experience, but recommended.
The director Joshua Oppenheimer had not originally intended to tell the story the way it went, but those who had been victimized during that time period were reluctant to talk, and the death squad members were eager to talk.
That probably ended up being for the best. Since they came from movie theater gangs and loved film, many are willing to reenact their past, using film techniques. A traditional approach could be very moving and educational, but what you get instead, seeing killers comfortable with their acts, and then bragging, and then maybe not so comfortable has an impact that you wouldn't easily expect.
It's a rather unique situation. It's not that there haven't been other genocides, but usually there is a general consensus that it was wrong afterward, like Post World War II Germany, or the perpetrators were Communists, where even if there is just as much tyranny as fascism resulting, there is this idea of the collective, and that is was for the people. (I'm not saying that the reasoning isn't fallacious, but that it does have an impact.)
Here the slaughter was against the Communists. Instead, the heroes were gangsters, and people refer over and over to how their word for "gangster" comes from "free man", so these are people who go their own way. It is the individual, and someone who is strong.
(Their word is based on the Dutch preman.)
This mindset makes it not terribly surprising when you see a militia leader shaking down Chinese merchants for "donations" to his group, or a political candidate gleefully calculating how much money he can make by threatening building code enforcement, whether there are violations or not. He loses, not because of that, but because he does not give out enough gifts during his campaigning. It is a gangster society, built upon protection money, bribes, and corruption.
There are a lot of interesting things about the movie, and things that you can think about and wonder about a lot. One thing that struck me was two of the main killers, Anwar and Adi, visiting with a newspaper reporter. The reporter commented on how smooth they must have been, because he never suspected that these interrogations and killings were going on right above his head. Adi, with some enjoyment I believe, points out that it basically means he was a lousy reporter, because they were not hiding anything. Normally that would just make me think about failure of the press, except for the way the reporter's face changes when he is told that his boss was in charge. His shock is so personal, that it takes him from a frustrating failure of a journalist to a person coming up against something he was not ready for.
The conversations are important to have, and the movie has been facilitating many conversations, but I want to emphasize how important the "acting", and staging, ended up being.
First of all, things came out. Anwar ends up being the main character, and he is charming. You see him being very sweet and gentle with his grandsons and an injured duck. You also see him demonstrating using a wire to strangle people, because beating them to death was too messy, with blood all over the place and stinking if you didn't clean it up. And you see him doing a little dance talking about this, but then there is also a list of substances used that keeps getting longer, and you see it has taken a toll that has not truly been acknowledged.
A little later they are using a neighbor to play the part of a Communist facing interrogation, and as they are talking before he is smiling and laughing, but then he shares a story that maybe they could use, about his stepfather's murder. The feeling changes as they decide the story is too complicated to share, but there is a hurt that has come up, and as they act out the torture the neighbor is just a mess, but then after he is changed.
To me it felt like he had suppressed that grief and everything bad it had done to him for years, and now it was back. He will have to face it, but there was a hollowness before, and there can be something there now. It felt like he was going to come to terms with it. The film gave him a chance to speak about it, and it gave him a chance to feel what his stepfather and others might have felt, and he can move forward.
With greater involvement in the process, there is a greater effect on Anwar. As he takes on the role of someone interrogated and executed and beheaded, it becomes physically harder for him. His sidekick Herman is having a great time playing with the fake organs, but Anwar is looking ill. He says he could not do the scene again, and the end has him basically dry-heaving at the same spot where we saw him cheerfully talking about his killing methods and dancing at the beginning.
Before the physical breakdown, but after watching the scene where he "dies", Anwar gets contemplative, wondering if he did wrong, and saying he knows now how those men felt. This is one of the view spots where you hear Oppenheimer's voice, as he argues that Anwar knew it was pretend, but those men knew they were really going to die, and it was not the same. Anwar insists that he can feel it.
I am willing to believe that Anwar did feel something close. I believe the creative efforts of staging and acting unlocked the empathy which he had silenced at the time. I say that because of other results of creative expression I have seen, so it makes sense to me, but also because of seeing the weight upon Anwar grow.
It is a hard thing. He is responsible for so much death, and he has stature and respect for that. He is the beneficiary of a cruel and corrupt culture because of his participation in it. He is also a human, and it hurts him, turning off caring about the suffering of others because they "deserve" it is an important step on the road to genocide.
It's kind of like you are watching two movies. There are the scenes that the executioners stage, where it is film making, and there are costumes and effects and a script, but what we are really watching is the documentary about the people creating the other movie.
The other movie ends with a musical number with a waterfall and dancing girls and "Born Free" playing over the scene. In it, Anwar is thanked by two of his victims for sending them to Heaven and given a medal. It is telling that the ending he chose has to be one where it is okay that they were dead. Society has said that it was a necessary thing to get rid of the communists so they could have their freedom, but now he needs the victims to be okay too. That vision is not true enough, which leaves him on the roof struggling to get something out of him that won't leave.
It is horrible, but it needs to be seen and known. It needs to be talked about and felt for all the people who have shut it up inside. It needs to not happen again.