During a quiet moment on the set of a movie about the 1965-1966 massacres in Indonesia, an actor recollects a scene he witnessed as a child at the time. The actor, Suryono, recounts watching as a Chinese shopkeeper was dragged from his home and murdered. But the shopkeeper, he mentions as an aside, was his stepfather, and the killers, the “actors” to whom this recollection is addressed. As Suryono speaks to them, his voice shifts imperceptibly from an almost sycophantic celebration of their past deeds to an expression of sheer terror as he imagines—and soon performs, in the role of the victim—this past trauma.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s¹ THE ACT OF KILLING is a documentary about these “actors” and their production of a film representing and re-creating the atrocities they committed a half-century earlier. It follows Anwar Congo and other members of paramilitary groups responsible for the 1965-1966 killings as they narrate, act out, justify, enthusiastically recall, and struggle with their violent past. It is laden with scenes such as this one, moments of intense polyphony and polyvalence that blur the lines between adulation and condemnation, past trauma and present terror, performance and authenticity, historical violence and present power. The anonymity with which Suryono disavows his relationship to the “Chinese shopkeeper” speaks to the stakes, even fifty years later, of appearing to bear any sympathy to even a long-dead opponent of the current regime.
The documentary’s narrative force is supplied by Anwar Congo as it charts his movement, facilitated by his performances of his past acts of violence, from unrepentant pride to abject horror upon recognizing the suffering he may have inflicted. Anwar’s first appearances are gleeful, swaggering demonstrations of his killing technique; by the film’s final scenes, he asserts that he can imagine vividly the terror his victims and their families must have endured. While Anwar’s convulsions, as he performs a scene as one of his former victims, closely resemble those of the actually-traumatized Suryono, the film calls into question the authenticity of this ethical transformation. Has performance enabled Anwar to transcend his own experience, or is this performance itself a sophisticated effort at exculpating himself in the eyes of history?
Radically heterogenous fragments from the incomplete film-within-the-film provide the documentary’s most bizarre moments. There are dark interrogations scenes reminiscent of gangster and espionage flicks as well as full-on action sequences depicting the razing of entire villages. But there are also bizarre dream sequences that wouldn’t be out of place for David Lynch — the final shot consists of Anwar and his compatriot Herman Koto standing in front of a scenic waterfall, dressed in highly allegorical garb, while his victims sing his praises for killing them as a cover of “Born Free” plays in the background. It is near impossible to imagine how these scenes could cohere into a larger film.
THE ACT OF KILLING is a documentary — it asserts, structurally and cinematographically, that the scenes captured by its cameras’ lenses are real — and thus, like any documentary, it is open to and has been submitted to criticism of its purported truth-value. This follows, not unreasonably, from a typical line of critical displacement: I felt emotional reactions to the film, I was manipulated, I was manipulated because the film is manipulative, the film manipulated its subjects, and so forth. And while watching the film, it can feel incredible that the men on screen are able to speak so forthrightly and remorselessly about the murders they’ve committed.
While there is justice to these concerns, THE ACT OF KILLING is, nevertheless, above all relentless in questioning the performativity and mediacy of truth, including its own. The making of the killers’ film-within-this-film, their continuous performing, is at the center of this film, thus there is no point at which its performativity isn’t self-consciously merging truth and fiction at their fragile seams. The documentary itself plays with its own truth-making conventions by incorporating fictive narrative structures: Anwar’s Bildungsroman, the authenticity of which is itself called into question; its reliance on narrative roles and types that heighten Anwar’s story (Herman is a perfect buffoon, one expects malapropisms at every turn; Adi’s insidious, self-justified evil a menacing foil to Anwar’s self-doubt).
With its constant probing look at the political stakes of filmmaking, THE ACT OF KILLING sheds light on and holds in suspension the diverse, often contradictory ends and effects of film as technology of self-expression and memory; a site of intersubjectivity facilitating empathy and identification; and a tool of oppression and ideological propaganda.
Don’t miss this screening! Oppenheimer will be in attendance to talk about the film and take questions—you’re probably going to have a lot of them.
The Act of Killing
Saturday, October 5
Harvard Film Archive (24 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02138)
$9 Regular, $7 Students, Free to Harvard Students
1. Yes, the filmmaker and reviewer have nearly identical names; no, we are not the same person or related in any way.