Culture | The Act of Killing

Mise-en-abyme cinema and the Indonesian Massacres

Thus far in my column, I’ve mostly written about dusty old films that were released, quickly shelved, and remembered only by a select few. Usually, I live my adventures through the forgotten stacks of film history, but sometimes I get sick of endless Google goose chases for obscure films that nobody else gives a shit about. This week, being one of those times, I decided to do my column the old-fashioned way. That’s right, folks, close those gaping mouths: I actually went to a movie theatre.

Luckily for me, last Thursday was the most recent installment of Docville, a monthly series of documentary screenings hosted by the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM). The film screened,The Act Of Killing, was a remarkably unique documentary filmed entirely in Indonesia.

Largely made under rookie director Joshua Oppenheimer, but executive-produced by cinema heavy-weights Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the documentary focuses on Indonesia’s traumatic past and present collective memory.

The film follows Anwar Congo and a few other men that were involved in the government-sponsored massacre of communists that occurred between 1965 and 1966. Previously, Indonesia’s President Sukarno had maintained authority by forming a tenuous alliance with the  Indonesian Communist Party against the right-wing military. In September of 1965, however, the assassination of a number of generals was cast as an attempted communist coup, and the military soon began a campaign to exterminate all communists in Indonesia. By 1967, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 alleged communists had been murdered, and the Communist Party was all but non-existent.

Anwar explains that in 1965, he and his friends were promoted from “cinema gangsters” who made their money scalping movie tickets to paramilitary executioners. Over the next year, Anwar brags, he personally ended more than a thousand lives.

The film, which tells the unique story of a few in order to ask far-reaching questions about life, death, and human nature, has strong thematic similarities to Herzog’s other non-fiction work. Like Herzog’s Into the Abyss, for example, a film about men on death row, The Act of Killing looks at life through the eyes of those who kill.

Oppenheimer’s film, however, is far more bizarre than Herzog’s typical creations. For one, rather than holding Anwar and his fellow thugs accountable, the present Indonesian government celebrates the men as heroes. Indeed, the corrupt, totalitarian regime enshrines the extermination of communists as a glorious moment in Indonesian history. The state repression remains so intense, in fact, that most of the Indonesian members of the film crew appear as “anonymous” in the film’s credits to ensure their identities are protected.

Even stranger than the Indonesian celebration of mass murder is the film’s structure, which, as one critic put it, seems like a “throwaway gag from a post modern novel.” Rather than simply interviewing the former paramilitaries about their past, Oppenheimer asks them to engage in their own filmmaking process and re-enact their killings for him. The men decide to recreate their murders in the style of the classic American films they once sold tickets for, and the generic tropes for Westerns, film noirs, gangster flicks, and even musicals, become the structuring elements for the restaging of a genocide.

Many of the men’s conversations about their past occur on set during their re-enactments. Preparing to shoot, so to speak, the men stand around in cowboy hats, 1940s-style double-breasted suits, and bikinis, boasting about how many people they killed, and the ages of the young girls they raped (14 being the most desirable age, according to one).

Anwar also describes how he and his friends would go see Elvis movies and dance straight from the cinema to the paramilitary office down the street where they suspected communists were being interrogated.

“I’d give the guy a cigarette,” Anwar describes, “I’d still be dancing, laughing . . . It was like we were killing happily.”

Make no mistake: this is no Ken Burns history lesson. Rather than delivering a fact-based account of the horrors that took place, the film explores uncomfortable questions about the relationship between film, history, and personal experience.

Most importantly, perhaps, the film asks how to locate personal morality and guilt in a world that has gone mad. Anwar, despite the government’s celebration of his actions, is plagued by nightmares and second thoughts that worsen with the re-enactments. His friends, on the other hand, ostensibly feel no guilt: it’s just a “nerve imbalance,” they tell him. “You are haunted because your mind is weak.”

One of Anwar’s guilt-free pals, Adi Zulkadry, justifies his actions by noting, with disturbing accuracy, that “‘war crimes’ are defined by the winners . . . I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.” Adi points the finger of blame back toward America when he notes that “when George Bush was in power, Guantanamo was alright. The Americans killed the Indians” he continues, “has anybody been arrested for that?”

The doc also explores the bizarre role of American film in real-life violence, and the performative nature of killing. Most unnerving, perhaps, is Anwar’s boast that he borrowed execution methods directly from violent American flicks. The thugs’ choice to re-enact the murders in the style of classic American genres is thus disturbingly fitting.

American culpability in the genocide extends far beyond its cinema, however: the CIA has admitted that, in 1965, they supplied the Indonesian military with names of communists to murder and allegedly provided them with the funding and training to do so.

The film emerges as a disturbing and disorienting mise-en-abyme of historical reality, collective memory, personal experience, and cinema. Refusing the audience any simple access to truth, The Act of Killing interrogates the documentary genre’s claim to reality, and is the most important piece of non-fiction cinema I’ve seen in years.

Don’t take my word for it though – Morris and Herzog became the film’s executive producers only after they saw and were blown away by Oppenheimer’s finished product.

Herzog, upon viewing the film, said “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade,” calling it “unprecedented in the history of cinema.”