The way viewers react to Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ comes down to the way each viewer is able to expand their notion of the act of killing. In the liberal, privileged and mono-cultured West, we vaguely, yet virulently, understand murder (especially mass murder) as an unforgivable crime. Abstractly, we judge such crimes harshly; the openness of our understanding immediately shutters- and of this strong reaction, we are proud. We fancy ourselves a world away from such acts, though some members of American society have taken to shooting their fellow citizens in premeditated attacks in public spaces like schools, movie theaters, and shopping centers. Aside from our difficulty in reconciling mass killings here or there or anywhere, one thing is certain: we abhor it all. We consider the concept of the act of killing other humans resolutely inhuman.
So, what happens when we watch a film which documents the glorification of retired mass murderers? We may just freeze up for the first few minutes. Why are watching? We are stuck between walking away and keeping our minds open to the words, the sounds, the visions, and, in the case of Oppenheimer’s latest feature, the plotting…the reenactment of murders long buried. Difficult as it is to swallow, there’s another side to act of killing. Not a captured serial killer’s demented final testimony or the weeping, barely coherent statements of a criminal of passion. This professional, calculated and perhaps above all, government-sanctioned kind of killing of thousands of people for political purposes is in fact a necessary piece of the puzzle of what humans are capable of on a larger, less judged and more active scale. Recognizing a human who is speaking of having committed crimes we never thought there were questions about is necessary to understanding things like war from the level of the gangsters who act as contracted killers for bigger fish.
All that said, and from the same perspective I’ve just laid flat, I’ll be blunt: there is nothing sympathetic about the men who own the screen in this documentary. Their current cluelessness about the world beyond their sphere of brutality doesn’t make up for the brutality. Their smiles make them human, but the crimes they describe with wit and boyish energy maintain their cold-heartenedness. That part seems without a doubt, that they are missing something that makes other cringe at the sight of a crying child, a face in pain, straining muscles and veins, too much blood. These men -gangsters, they say- are free in a society in which people speak carefully, quietly, and have only popular open opinions, if any at all. They would have viewers believe that their freedom was born of some innate treasure chest of deservedness. They were special, in spite of being born into poverty. In fact, they became “free men”, gangsters, by virtue of their absolute lack of empathy.
In a conversation between one of the main characters in this vivid retelling, Anwar, and his old world cronies discuss a scene they planned in which the big boss Anwar gets covered in gory prosthetic flesh and plays one of his victims. He says he feels like one of them, that being in the position of having no dignity, even knowing that it is unreal, is like truly having none. Just as Anwar used glorious, hyper-masculine visions of Elvis Presley and the stars of the Western genre to lead his gangsters to kill over 1,000 so-called Communists during the 1960’s rebellion on foreigners, minorities, and unionized workers, Anwar’s feeling for acting and embodying a character is summoned up in the flow of energy- ever-violent and awful, no matter the side he chooses to take in it.
In a scene where the gangsters lay siege upon a village, massacring anyone they meet, the child actors -in some cases the sons and daughters of the gangsters- sob uncontrollably long after the cameras stop recording the reenactment. In other moments, the crowds cheer and laugh as women and children pretend to be victims of events that not only actually took place, but occurred at the hands of the men playing the murderers, and in many cases on the same grounds. They do so out of a fear bred into them by powerlessness against gangsters who lack the empathy that prevents men from shedding blood. The men speak of feeling haunted, but they do not have mercy. They refuse to repent.
So, “layers upon layers of disturbing” doesn’t begin to describe the fathomless depths of absurdity and horror that this kind of action portrays. And yet, it is a film. And it is a successful documentary about history.
Does watching ‘The Act of Killing’ make an American college student view murder differently? It will probably not have that effect- bloodshed is abhorrent to normal people. But the shameless absurdity that unfolds in the reenactment sheds light on what it takes to kill on a massive scale, and it isn’t exactly hatred, greed, for power- no. It’s the sanction of those who control things and the summoning of a collective coldness of heart that make it happen: the ability to believe that some people can die without negative consequence, without deserving guilt to ride on the killer’s back.