I was lucky enough to catch one of the premiere United States screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant new documentary The Act of Killing this past weekend. The documentary tells the story of anti-communist mass murder in Northern Sumatra in 1965 through the context of the contemporary state of affairs in Indonesia, where the agents of that genocide remain in syndicate power. As a gift to the audience, Oppenheimer himself appeared at the Landmark Sunshine Theatre on Houston St offering informal Q&A sessions following specific screenings of the film, showing his authentic dedication to opening of a line of dialogue about the nature of violence in modern times.
Oppenheimer appeared briefly before the screening to frame the film, assisting to remove the audience from a histrionic conception of events. Saying that “there are no good guys and bad guys, only losers and winners” Oppenheimer clearly pointed the audience in the direction of what is one of the main themes of his film, the dangers inherent in conceiving of history in the framework and logic of fiction. Furthermore, through his case study of paramilitary gangster Anwar Congo (just one of many death squad members Oppenheimer and crew followed over the past eight years), Oppenheimer’s film reveals how on a personal level, human beings are apt to understanding their own lives with a mythologized view of the self as hero.
The Act of Killing is a difficult film to digest, in his resistance and variation upon the common documentary script, Joshua Oppenheimer has crafted a duplicitous sort of movie about the difficulty in establishing or discovering truth in a world where the facts and history are distorted by the news media and governments alike; where an atmosphere of fear can silence the voices of the multitudes of the oppressed. Perhaps what is most revealing of The Act of Killing’s current relevancy are the scores of Indonesian crew members who chose to remain listed anonymously in the film’s credits, chilling evidence of a population of people living in fear of violent recourse by a regime of gangsters who derived their power via the wholesale murder of civilians. Showing the pervasive power of fear.
Despite the challenges to our Hollywood informed global schema inherent in The Act of Killing, the film has gone on to screen to thousands in Indonesia and begin a renewed social and media dialogue about the disputed mass killings in 1965. Furthermore, the film has been the most financially successful opening for a documentary this year. Beyond that, The Act of Killing has sparked the interest of a relatively uninformed American public into a matter of history which has been overlooked for decades. A mass killing overseas which, through to its relations to American cold-war diplomacy, reveals many self-reflective implications for an American culture that seems continually fed by militarism.
Given this self-reflective aspect of the film and the opportunity to ask Joshua Oppenheimer himself about these implications I asked “seeing as this mass killing in Indonesia was reported by the Western media to be a military coup d’état, how can we (an American audience) use the knowledge of euphemisms like coup (as in the recent coup in Egypt) to gain a more accurate understanding of current events as they occur?”
The director smiled at my question and remarked about its importance but feigned slightly to give a straight answer. Instead, Oppenheimer stressed the importance in finding a distinction between right and wrong, and looking at the facts where available. As a related anecdote, Oppenheimer told the story of a couple of the death squad members he filmed in Indonesia asking him to take a picture of them smiling at the site of what had been a mass grave during the events of ‘65. He compared those two perpetrators to the images we have seen come back from our own wars, specifically Abu Grhaib, where American soldiers posed with smiling faces besides tortured prisoners.
There is a reason The Act of Killing has become one of the most publicized and acclaimed films released this year. It opens up the doors to a perception of events removed from the typical fictionalization of journalism. I do not imagine that everyone will walk away from this movie with the same insights, but undoubtedly folks will come back from it changed. Able to talk about a genocide they most likely had never been informed of, perhaps, most importantly, people will come back willing to discuss the societal and personal implications of a culture that glorifies the brutal machinery of murder.