DVD Review: The Act Of Killing
[WARNING: though not graphic in a literal ‘violence on screen’ sense this film deals with disturbing thematic content and recreations of actual atrocities. Care should be taken deciding whether you should see this.]
One of the most singular, intense, and emotionally-psychologically heavy experiences I’ve ever encountered, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a bizarre and compelling remembering of a violent socio-political period of Indonesian history from the perspective of the perpetrators of the violence which continues, to a lesser degree, to this day. Stopped from doing any interviews with the surviving ‘communist’ victims or their families the filmmakers were forced to into a more creative mode, resulting in a strangely terrifying account of humanity’s ability to rationalise it’s very worst behaviour. This would be tantamount to Interviewing remorseless Nazi officers—directly involved in mass killings—years after the fact, and in a world where they had won the war. You get the picture. This is disturbing, if not visually graphic, stuff that will likely sit with you for days upon days.
Instead of talking head interviews—though there are snippets of some—The Act of Killing is produced as a kind of ‘making of’ account of another film. This ‘other’ film (lord knows if it actually exists!?) is a dramatised reenactment outlining events of torture and killing of avowed and alleged communists under the Suharto regime in the 1960s. In contrast the documentary itself is more about the ways in which people and regimes frame their narrative and actions when atrocities are treated as acceptable. Subsequently, both films are curiously composed of specific and detailed anecdotal reenactments alongside kitschy—and hence contextually horrifying—song and dance pantomimes (in typically garish colours and costumes) as well as awfully frank commentary on the veracity of these filmed proceedings from the ‘gangster’ actors.
It seems the word ‘gangster’ (or its Indonesian equivalent) is heavily employed and referenced in the party propaganda of the controlling regime in Indonesia. We see it being used and defined on public television, by government officials, and at convention/gatherings of the millions strong paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila. The word ‘gangster’ they tell us, comes from a root which means “free men” (an expression always enunciated in English by the non-english speaking subjects). “Gangsters” are free to act and do things that government officials/troops—being constrained by law, public trust etc—cannot. You see, these “gangsters” were the ones who made up the regime death squads responsible for the sanctioned slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ‘communists’ and ethnic Chinese.
Watching notorious, aging, state recognised thugs reenact specific crimes they have committed and putting themselves in the role of their victims is brutally surreal. Each person has different response to this: some seemingly feeling the weight of guilt, others seeming not to see any fault in their actions. What is clear is that the everyday Indonesian people they meet are still terrified of them and that the lengthy line of justifying propaganda, stretching back to the 60s, is still spooling out from both the state controlled machine as well as from these powerful individuals. The Act of Killing is documentary making par excellence; a necessary, though heavy, viewing experience.
Rating: R13 Violence and content that may disturb.
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