Monday, September 16, 2013

The Act of Killing

Watched Joshua Oppemheimer's film The Act of Killing last night. I'd recently read something about it before leaving for Iowa; something about how many people who made the film were identified in the titles as only Anonymous. And this is true.

Image from here

I still feel, as I often do after documentaties that cut deep, unable to write coherently about the film. So associative thoughts, rather than proper review, follows:


The film had to have been shot in a linear manner. There is a significant change in the main character(s) over the course of the film that is fundamentally Greek tragedy in its catharsis-seeking structure. There is unspeakable crime (what we'd call war crime, but which terminology one character refuses to acknowledge as applying to him. 'The winners write history,' he says. 'I am a winner. One day we will throw out the Geneva Convention and there will be a Jakarata Convention.'*

So war crimes. And when the filmmakers ask a few of those involved in the hunting down of and killing of communists back in the late 60's, two of the men, Anwar Congo among them, agree to re-enact some of the atrocities they committed. The go looking for actors: women, children. At first the people laugh, as does the audience. But this is massacre, rape, arson and garotting we're talking about. The laughter turns uncomfortable. We feel complicit.

Anwar and his friends are 'gangsters' which the film frequently glosses as meaning 'free men'. Their heroes are other filmic gangsters, heroes of the old Westerns, beacons of machismo. They watch films after selling tickets in black and then go and kill a few commies.

Anwar enacts the garottings. He dances, says he used to dance after. He watches himself in the scene that's just been filmed and remarks, 'I would never have worn white trousers to a killing. I look like I'm going to a picnic.'

As film buffs, Anwar and his friend declare that this film has to be entertaining, otherwise no one will watch. So there are these strange sequences that could have come straight out of a del Toro film or a Herzog. The girls in pink coming out of the mouth of a rusty fish by the seashore, the waterfall - they're pure Fitzcarraldo or Fata Morgana. I felt prescient thinking that, because I found later that Werner Herzog was indeed one of the producers of the film.

There were so many things that made me squirm, remember other films about genocide: Final Solution, Father, Son and Holy War. I thought of Resnais' Night and Fog and the impossibility - the undesirability, even - of re-enactment. I thought of the necessity of remembering while avoiding the pornography of consuming such horror.

But because the filmmakers (and here I credit more than the director, for reasons I will come to soon) chose both a classical approach while undercutting it with the bizarre, the film does not feel at any point like a gratuitous massaging of the conscience. There is remorse and horror at the end, and I briefly wondered if it was necessary. I think it was, it is. It is a genuine loss of self and recovery of conscience to which one possible reponse - I don't know what other there can be - is compassion.

As for the many, many anonymous people who participated in the making of this film - their courage is as remarkable as (I am afraid) it might be futile. The other paramilitary men, those who took part in the filming and then had doubts about how this will look and what it will say about them - they may not know the crew by name, but they know faces and they know how to find out about people and where they live and so on. I wonder what use their witholding of a name is and I wonder what they've had to do to remain under the radar.

Towards the end, after Congo puts himself int he position of the victim and is shattered by the experience, he asks to watch the scene in his home. 'I know what it feels like to be a victim,' he says. 'Did they feel what I felt?' Someone from behind the camera says, 'No. They knew they were being killed. You were just acting in a scene.'

These other filmmakers. The ones whose names stay boldly theirs in the end credits - they can leave. They can watch from elsewhere. They can appear at screenings in other countries. These anonymous people, though, must live where they always have. I wonder what that story is and how it will play out.

*These sentences are not continuous in the film, though they happen in the same scene. They're also slight paraphrases.

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