The Act of Killing (Denmark-Sweden-UK, 2012)



Blood on their faces

I posted about the seminal film of cinema veriteChronicle of a Summerearlier this year. A recent example of the form is the highly controversial The Act of Killing where director Joshua Oppenheimer allowed the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, in Indonesia during the mid-1960s, to re-enact their foul deeds. The premise itself seems highly dubious and Oppenheimer described how it came about:

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

         Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast.  (Bradshaw 2014)

The killers wanted to reconstruct the atrocities in the form of genres including the gangster film, film noir and there is even a musical section. Oppenheimer’s facilitation of this, which couldn’t have occurred without his presence, firmly situates the film as cinema verite. It has been estimated that two and a half million people were killed because they were designated as communist or they were Chinese. That the killers were keen to talk about their role in the massacres is indicative of the fact that the Indonesian state, and by extension, Indonesian society, sees nothing wrong with their actions. Indeed, at one point a number of them appear on a chat show bragging about what they did though one, Anwar, does appear to feel guilty by the film’s end.

Oppenheimer has been criticised for not explaining the context of the events (see Rayns, 2013) and it is difficult to tell if Anwar’s remorse is genuine or ‘played’ for the cameras.

It did seem to me that his realisation of the evil that he has done is actual. It occurs after he plays the role of a victim, for one of the re-stagings, and he says that he now knows how bad the people he killed felt. Oppenheimer, in one of his few direct interventions, is heard to say it was worse for Anwar’s victims. Anwar seems genuinely puzzled until the director explains that while he knew he would survive, his victims knew they were going to die. At this point Anwar appears to suffer a ‘sea change’ in his attitude to his actions.

None of the other perpetrators show anything other than pride in what they did and politicians’ explicit support of them, and the Pancasila (a paramilitary youth group), shows the corruption of contemporary Indonesian politics. In the light of this, Anwar’s realisation seems genuine given the celebratory nature the killers are still regarded with.

However, in a film that is disturbing throughout (I saw the two-hour version) the obvious distress of children who take part in the re-enactments does raise questions about the ethics of Oppenheimer’s film.


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