Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The Act of Killing’s opening titles introduce a conceit that we can — and should — be skeptical of: a group of former death squad-mates, responsible for the extermination of thousands of alleged communists during the Indonesian purge of 1965-66, recreate those killings in the manner of their choosing. How could the results be anything but the glorification of genocide? And it’s worse than you think. The now-aging preman (gangsters) speak about their murders for the camera with casual pride. The protagonist, Anwar, dispels his memories of personally strangling approximately 1,000 people with wire by dancing. A parade of horrors follow. In one scene, a newspaper editor admits that he not only manipulated the public to accept mass murder, but personally ordered killings himself. a paramilitary fondly reminisces about raping and killing 14-year-old girls while he razed villages. The killers do not remember their murders with glory or passion, but with the banal nostalgia of a weekend of binge drinking. Oppenheimer’s strategy is to let the gangsters willingly contribute this casualness, and the result is absolutely surreal: reenactments of torture draw laughter and cheers from audiences; the perpetrators play both themselves and their victims; above all else, the preman insist on their English etymology: they are “free men.” They’re right: in spite of Anwar’s unconscionable crimes, he is revered as one of the founders of the enormous paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, whose status and past deeds are fully supported by the democratic government. One can perceive in The Act of Killing a macrocosmic view of war crimes where only history’s losers are indicted; the winners live a life of families and shopping malls. But gradually, the project’s deeper implications take hold of the gangsters, who begin to realize that their reenactments will be seen as cruel by the public. They profess their deeds but not their consequences. “Not everything true is good,” one observes. Over time, the staged killings visibly disturb Anwar.

In some of the recreations, children volunteer as extras; to the confusion of the gangsters, they don't stop crying after they hear "cut." These scenes' ethics unsettle me far more than any "deception" or "betrayal" of the film's preman subjects, but they raise a profound truth: no one but a psychopath could look at these acts and not feel that basic human decency has been violated.

In the last ten minutes, the cycle of emotional and political immunity breaks down, and at last we see a response to guilt and genocide that we can comprehend. It's shattering. It seems that guilt cannot be cured by dancing and political speeches.
In one shot, the camera flies along straight railroad tracks towards a deep horizon. As I watched that shot, I recalled that shots moving along roads and rails were a central motif in Claude Lanzmann’s holocaust documentary Shoah, another film that used deception to pry accounts of genocides from perpetrators who insist they are guiltless. Some of the gangsters seem truly unphased by their pasts. Those who regret, will regret it until they die. The tracks seem to stretch on forever.


Post a Comment