The Act of Killing (2012)

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*. A documentary doesn’t present the truth but rather a shaping, interpretation, selection, and perspective on the truth. In the best postmodern fashion, The Act of Killing is more about this process than about the product.
*. It isn’t quite a meta-documentary since it’s not about its own construction but rather presents dramatic re-enactments of real events. On the DVD commentary director Joshua Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog compare it to reality television but an even closer analog might be the mockumentary. The cast are a bunch of deluded clowns we can barely take seriously. But we have to because they’re killers.
*. On one level there’s nothing terribly profound or revealing about what’s happening. “Morality is relative” and, as is also pointed out, it’s the winners who get to write history (“When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. . . . . ‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner so I can make my own definition.”). In their political culture the “gangsters” we meet here were heroes. Of course we think it’s outrageous that they should happily re-enact scenes of torture and mass murder, but we are outsiders to that culture and cultural moment. Within their own frame of reference they have nothing to be ashamed of.

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*. Being against killing people, the act of killing, is not a cultural universal, and never has been. As Dirty Harry once remarked, there’s nothing wrong with killing people as long as the right people get killed. The cinema gangsters thought they were killing the right people. Why would they care what somebody on the other side of the world thinks of what they’ve done? It’s unlikely they’ll ever even visit the U.S., or the Hague.
*. At least that’s one way of looking at it. I was confused, however, to hear Oppenheimer say that the television show where the killers are interviewed struck Indonesian audiences as shocking. There’s nothing in the film itself to suggest this. The studio crew watching on monitors make some cynical comments on the proceedings but that’s it. This seems to me to be a major mistake on Oppenheimer’s part, as the impression he creates is quite the opposite of what he says the real reaction was.
*. The basic conceit, and there’s a long tradition behind it, is that through the use of masks the actors would feel free to be more themselves, that through the creation of fictions we get closer to the truth. Do you buy it? Or do you feel lost in a performance, a (quite literal in this case) mise en abyme?

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*. This question is starkly presented in the final trip to the rooftop with Anwar. Do you believe that he is feeling remorse for his sins? That he has become partially self-aware? Oppenheimer, I think, does, but he was somewhat invested in Anwar by then. It’s notable that Herzog and Errol Morris both seem to take a more cynical view, seeing Anwar as still acting for the camera. Personally, I take this view as well. I think he’s faking it. I don’t think he’s learned anything. So the performance is just another layer of deception.
*. Then there is Siregar, the journalist who tries to distinguish cruelty from sadism and then goes on to deny knowing anything about the killings. This is actually the part of the film I found the most fascinating. Here’s someone who clearly is acting: pretending that he had no idea what was going on when Anwar and Adi were torturing and killing prisoners. No one is buying his performance though, and he is ridiculed and exposed as a lying worm.
*. It’s a male world, with the women we meet all being viewed by the gangsters as whores. Perhaps this explains Herman’s bizarre turn as Divine. Is he funny? Yes, but Divine was both funny and threatening too.

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*. The political angle is devastating. There’s a juxtaposition of high and low throughout, with Anwar just a bag man doing “grunt work” for a political and economic elite who “need gangsters to get things done.” But what an elite! This is what a gangster state looks like: the thugs at the top just the same as the ones at the bottom only they have more money to buy trashier bling. You have to wonder how much of the rot in such a state begins at the top and trickles down and how much of it has grass roots.

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*. Their philosophical justifications trickle down anyway. The gangsters are “free men,” libertarians, the opposite of government bureaucrats. Except they are bureaucrats. They are the men of action who “get things done.” There’s something about the sound of that that should concern us in the West. And am I the only one who thinks the higher-ups appear to be scared of Congo when he comes to visit?
*. Does media violence breed violence? Anwar explains “When I was young I always watched American films and imitated them.” But he sees himself as Sidney Poitier, and the genre reenactments take the form of lavish musicals as well as gangster films. So I don’t really think what we’re seeing here is an example of life imitating art. Though there are moments when my corollary to Wilde’s dictum, that life mainly imitates bad art, seems in play.

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*. Oppenheimer interviewed dozens of gangsters but you can tell right away why he settled on building the film around Congo (despite the fact that individuals like Congo were, according to the publisher we meet, dime a dozen at the time). The camera loves Congo, he has the charisma of a Poitier or Mandela (who he resembles), authority and charm, and can even break into a few dance moves. And yet like many Hollywood stars he can’t act at all. in the film within a film he repeatedly fails to get a simple line right. Herman is much better, though he has no personal magnetism and is hilariously inept as a politician (the one role in which he can’t remember his lines).
*. In the end, it’s a movie that leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s wonderfully shot and edited, and filled with indelible moments and lines (“I believe even God has secrets”). It paints a terrifying portrait of state corruption and violence, in a way that helps remind us of just how bad things can get when the wheels come off completely.
*. At the same time, the bizarre concept and some of the more outlandish (or, as Herzog would have it, “surreal”) moments feel like a distraction to me. Does such an approach conceal more than it reveals? Oppenhemier makes a nice observation on the commentary track about how Anwar holds his grandchildren up in front of him as a way of screening himself from the re-enactments of his crimes. But I wonder if the whole exercise became that for him: a way of safely mediating his memories and bad dreams. Postmodernism is a defence against the real.

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