Earlier today, the director of The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer published a comment about the influence his Oscar-nominated documentary had on the Indonesian society. The Act of Killing revisits and literally re-enacts the country’s horror from 1965, when the military overtook government power and killed more than 500,000 people labeled “communists.” The Act of Killing is by far not the only documentary Oscar nominee to deal with history or politics. From the 5 nominations this year, only Cutie and the Boxer and 20 Feet from Stardom are not directly related to politics or history.
But Oppenheimer’s film is not just historical—its themes of social lies, death, and denial of wrongdoing are rather universal. Instead of focusing on the factual past of Indonesia, The Act of Killing examines the country’s present where 50 years later the killers are proud, boastful, and more than willing to appear in front of the camera and show in graphic detail how they were killing the people. In his statement Oppenheimer said:
The film is not a historical narrative. It is a film about history itself, about the lies victors tell to justify their actions, and the effects of those lies; about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt the present.
Oppenheimer originally went to Indonesia on a different film project, but during his time there he realized there is also another Indonesian story he wants to tell. He spent 8 years in Indonesia researching and talking to survivors, and filmed more than 40 mass killers over a period of 2 years, all proud and boastful about how they were murdering people.
The anti-hero in The Act of Killing, a proud protagonist in his own eyes, is Anwar Congo—he was the 41st perpetrator Oppenheimer filmed. Excited someone is making a film about him and seeing it as praise for his deeds, Anwar starts re-enacting the killings, looking for actors to play the victims, dying his hair black to look more frightening in front of the camera, and dancing cha-cha at the place where he killed hundreds. The Act of Killing employs self-reference in order to tell the story, and in the eyes of the killers, becomes a film spectacle justifying and commemorating their wrongdoing. But in pretending to do so, the movie exposes and condemns their atrocities.
I understood instinctively that if we could show how these men wished to be seen, we would also glimpse how they really see themselves, and the whole façade that genocide is heroic would come crumbling down.
Self-Reference in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing
In one of the first scenes in The Act of Killing, Anwar shows how he used to kill people by strangling them with wire on a rooftop.
At first, we beat them to death, but there was too much blood. […] So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system.
Anwar explains this in a nonchalant manner, laughing and dancing, almost as if he is giving a tutorial. Later when he is watching (in front of his granddaughter) the footage of himself on the rooftop, he perceives it as if it is just another movie and compares himself to cinema villains.
We were more cruel than the movies.
The film reference here has several levels of meaning. On one hand, The Act of Killing itself is a movie about the event, but within The Act of Killing, Anwar is watching footage of himself in the film. And in the footage, he is “acting” his past killings—thus, in a way, self-referencing himself. The scene therefore becomes a double self-reference: The Act of Killing referencing itself, and Anwar referencing himself.
The movie-like aspect of The Act of Killing and the self-reference cleverly play on the reality of violence in a way reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Oppenheimer (video below, starting at about 12 min.) called the film “a kind of documentary of the imagination, as opposed to a documentary of […] everyday lives.” The imaginative qualities of the violence scenes remove them from the immediate reality, filter them through the less real film medium.
Importantly, The Act of Killing never shows any archive footage opposing the killings—no news, no footage of the dead, no political speeches. (The media censorship and maybe lack of proper documentation is a different matter. But The Act of Killing intentionally omits any historical documentation).
The Act of Killing, however, shows footage from a national TV stations where Anwar is invited to talk about the film (The Act of Killing itself), which is described as “commemorate[ing] the crushing of the communists.” Split a couple of times throughout the TV scene, The Act of Killing also shows original shots (the TV logo is missing) of Anwar in the background of the TV props or as observed through the TV camera. Through video reference (similar to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell), the shots emphasize the fakeness of the portrayed image of Anwar and the killings. They also suggest denial and escapism from reality.
In the studio, when Anwar says the communists’ killings were influenced by cinema scenes, the audience starts applauding. The scene is a sort of ironic appraisal of a nation supporting fake movie-like heroes and a denial of reality. Anwar explains his movie influences:
In mafia films, they strangle the guy in the car and dump the body. So we did that too.
In his statement today, Oppenheimer said he specifically did not want any families of the victims to be in the movie for ethical reasons. The lack of any historical perspective of the event detaches it from reality and highlights the ignorant denial of the perpetrators. The point of view of the victims is not shown because in the perpetrators’ minds it simply doesn’t exist. The lack of historical reference makes the killings feel more like film fiction.
Anwar seems willing to perceive it this way. Multiple times throughout The Act of Killing, he makes movie references. He stages various killings and attempts to portray them as glorious. He wears make-up, fake teeth, and casts kids to play in his re-enactment. He discusses with his friends what clothes he should wear in the re-enactments (“For the killings wear jeans.[…] When you kill people, you should wear thick clothes.”)
In the beginning of The Act of Killing, Anwar boastfully references the movie itself as a portrayal of his “achievements”:
Whether this ends up on the big screen or only on TV, it doesn’t matter. But we have to show…so in the future people will remember! It doesn’t have to be a big film—like Rank Organization, Paramount Pictures, MGM. We, in our simple way, step by step, will tell the story of what we did when we were young! […]
To look cool, I imitated movie stars. […] Why do people watch James Bond? To see action. Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see power and sadism. […] We can make something even more sadistic than what you see in movies about Nazis. Because there’s never been a movie where heads get chopped off—except in fiction, but that’s different—because I did it in real life!
In one of the re-enactment scenes, Anwar’s friend is giving stage directions to kids to cry as if the perpetrators are about to burn their house down. A “film crew” (Anwar’s “team,” not Oppenheimer’s) is capturing the event with a camera and a microphone. It is not quite clear who is acting in the scene and who is genuinely disturbed.
The fictional dramatization of the reality of the killings is a repeated theme throughout The Act of Killing. Through the re-enactment and the film references, Anwar and his friends subconsciously want to silence the reality of the crimes they committed. In the video interview above, Oppenheimer said this is probably a defensive reaction to their unwillingness to accept the reality of their wrongdoings:
In Anwar, I think I started to see that the boasting might be defensive. That perhaps, you know, if you’ve never been forced to admit what you’ve done is wrong, and, on the contrary, you would get handed an excuse by the government justifying it, you cling to that excuse so that you can live with yourself.
Through repeated film- and self-references, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing depicts a complex picture of the denial of the reality of a historical genocide. The film documents a human tragedy projected as heroic by those unable and unwilling to accept its significance.