A brisk overview of Indonesia’s history is best required to understand the social and political milieu operating in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Indonesia sought independence from the then operating Dutch regime. In place for several hundred years, the Dutch were eventually toppled by a leftist communist faction that only briefly took over the country before falling to Indonesia’s right-wing army – a group of gangsters who were bred from the same Dutch cloth as their ancestors. The gangster regime change maintained the status quo perpetuated by their Dutch ancestry (the rich continued to amass wealth) but prompted the steadfast killing of all opposition. The killers of perceived communists are the central focus to Oppenheimer’s film.
The mass killings were generally accepted by the West in part because of the strenuous political situation at the time: it was the middle of the Cold War and any sort of communist threat was to be neutralized. Headlines from The New York Times and Time Magazine promoted the murders, positing the genocides as “a gleam of light in Asia”. And as Oppenheimer’s film opens, the image of these murderers walking the streets as if royalty confirms that no action was taken following their crimes – remnants of the Cold War on display.
Prefacing The Act of Killing is a message from director Joshua Oppenheimer, whereby he presents a certain set of expectations when looking at his film. I’ll get back to this problematic aside later, but his message does emphasize one’s inability to enjoy The Act of Killing – enjoy being the focal word. The tapestry of death in which Oppenheimer creates is nothing short of grim. Though it’s Oppenheimer’s design that leads to a truly problematic experience whereby various tonal experiments clash to the film’s detriment.
The film features the charismatic dealings of Anwars Congo - a man of considerable experience who murdered the opposition. Congo reminisces of his murders with nostalgic reverence, taking Oppenheimer to various kill sites and reenacting what he did. When reviewing Oppenheimer’s recordings, Congo is less concerned with the act itself and is preoccupied by the aesthetics of the film – his clothing and appearance. What The Act of Killing and Oppenheimer’s camera represents to Congo and the various militants featured is not a means of catharsis but rather a means to exploit and even celebrate their destruction.
There’s a case study to be made out of this type of destructive and evil behavior, but The Act of Killing is simply not that. Too scattershot a portrait of genocide, with a questionable reliance on reenactments to probe the psychological complexities of death, Oppenheimer’s modus operandi implicates but never satiates. Whether his intention or not, Oppenheimer’s freeform methodology buckles when he must interject himself into the proceedings – Congo’s moment of self-revelation prompted only through Oppenheimer’s probing. And the films’ hasty conclusion, involving Congo exercising his gag-reflex, is yet another example of projecting a falsified personality.
It’s in his director’s introduction that Oppenheimer addresses the concept of good and evil as projections of cinema – essentially noting that the fantasy fails to address the gray area that exists in reality. I take umbrage with the idea as it implies that the projection is one dimensional - yet it’s quite clear that film is a projection of reality, however distorted it may be. The experiences of filmmakers and the films they make carry social and ideological heft from unique experiences. Congo confesses to be inspired by the gangsters of early 40s and 50s Hollywood films, adopting some of their unique methods of murder into his own repertoire. Yet it’s these actions, exacted in our reality, which is considered a gray area? Oppenheimer attempts to impose a measure of sympathy for Congo, hoping the man will be capable of having a cathartic experience following the murders he’s committed. But for some people, their descent into evil is so far gone that it’s nothing short of a lost cause. What The Act of Killing ends up becoming is an exercise in delusion – delusion in cleansing evil of its sins.