Saturday, January 25, 2014

Revisiting The Act of Killing 

A film by Joshua Oppenheimer

"I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at at least a decade . . . unprecedented in the history of cinema." -Werner Herzog

"You celebrate mass killing so you don't have to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer. You keep your victims oppressed so that they don't challenge your story. When you put the justification – the celebration – under a microscope, you don't necessarily see a lack of remorse, but you start to see an unravelling of the killers' conscience. So what appears to be the symptom of a lack of remorse is in fact the opposite. It's a sign of their humanity." Josh Oppenheimer in an interview with The Guardian, June 2013.

Oppenheimer's film, The Act of Killing, tells the story of the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacres NOT from the point of view of the victims, but from the killers'. While telling their side of history, the killers act out shocking deeds with fervor in the tradition of American film icons: western heroes, gangsters, even romantic Elvis is shown as a motivating theatrical force. This film takes the watcher on an unflinching and coruscating journey into the souls of murderers. What lies behind the bravado and justifications may surprise you.

In July 2013, I watched the director's cut of The Act of Killing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, took part in the Q & A afterwards with Josh Oppenheimer; two days later I attended the director's master class, then read various pamphlets, articles and essays, heard pundits discuss the film on the internet, and . . . still not sure I have the wherewithal to review this masterpiece. 

But I'm going to try because I cannot stop thinking about it. 

First, a little background:

On October 1, 1965,  junior officers in the the Indonesian military slaughtered six high-ranking generals. General Suharto, the future president of Indonesia, survived and beat back the attempted takeover. Later, he accused Indonesia's Communist party (PKI) of staging the coup, even though the group fervently denied it. It was this accusation that would lead to the all-pervasive purge of communism on the  archipelago. In less than one year, street gangsters and others hired by the army and top government officials tortured, jailed and executed 1.5 million communists and communist supporters, and Chinese nationals -- men, women, and children. It was Suharto's  religion of avowed "anti-Communism" that would keep him in power for thirty-one years.
Joshua Oppenheimer

The killers (purportedly numbered in the thousands) were never punished. Instead, they were continually celebrated with gifts of political power, money, parades, and nearly four decades of interviews and accolades by Indonesia's media. Another perk of carrying out the massacres was being able to boast about the dirty deeds both privately and publicly. What if the Nazi Party had triumphed in WWII? What if Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the the holocaust, and Martin Sandberger, high ranking SS member, had lived? Just imagine the endless parties and ticker-tape parades. 

Until 2012. 

But before I get to that, let's consider a curious parallel universe. Y'all know that Barack O'bama spent some time in Indonesia, but did you know that in 1965, Stanley Ann Dunham, mother of our president married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student at the University of Hawaii. After his visa expired, Soetoro returned to Indonesia in 1966. Less than two years after the massacres, Obama and his mother moved to Jakarta to rejoin his stepfather. Barack Obama would live in Indonesia for the next four years before returning to Hawaii in 1971. Four years in a city still smoldering from the stench of wanton destruction of human beings perpetrated by other human beings. Put that in your fill-in-the-blank and smoke it for a while.

Okay, back to the film.  Oppenheimer grew up realizing that almost all of his father's family had been obliterated during the holocaust. He had heard on many occasions, we must learn from this and never again. But Oppenheimer also realized that human destruction continued to occur all over the world. It had not stopped, people did not learn; the filmmaker set out to try to find out why.

Oppenheimer arrived in Indonesia in 2001 and began working with victims' families, conducting interviews and telling their side of the killings through film. Too often, he was side-railed by the police who warned him off the stories, threatening to do the families harm. The victims encouraged Oppenheimer to get to know the killers. If he could do that, they said, he would be left alone.

Adi Zulkadry and Anwar Congo
After interviewing dozens of Indonesian killers, Oppenheimer chose the grandfatherly figure of Anwar Congo to be the film's main spokesperson and actor. We hear pride in his voice as Congo tells us that he's killed around 1000 communists. And we watch with awe as he demonstrates with great attention and detail a strangling technique that he learned from American movies. For years, Oppenheimer worked side by side with this killer and his executioner pals. The director has often said that although he never actually grew to like Congo, he cared and worried about him because he was a fellow human being.

Oppenheimer doesn't believe the killers are monsters. He thinks that they are more like us than we are like victims. "Whereas, in fact, the main editor of the film, and that's why I asked him to edit the film, he said, "You know, Josh, it's very refreshing to see a film about perpetrators, because we're much closer to perpetrators than victims.  All of us." Oppenheimer in an interview Hollywood Reporter, February, 2013

But how can that be?

At the Walker, Oppenheimer said the Indonesian massacres were committed by people who were praised for their actions. What do you do with that kind of commendation? You kill again. With impunity. 

In The Act of Killing you can see just how much the killers and their deeds foster a sense of national pride and tradition. When Congo and his cohorts walk down busy streets and are saluted, they reflect cultural morality and conviction. Congo holds up a big mirror to Indonesian society and we glimpse what lies in its heart. So just like us, he and the other killers echo a larger community, a larger belief system. Victims don't get to hold up a mirror at all because they can't ever graduate to the camp of the majority and its power source. 

Herman Koto and Anwar Congo
The tone of the film, most notably the re-enactments, take on a dreamlike, surrealistic incongruence much like the Theatre de l'Abusrde of the late 1950's. But unlike the work of the European playwrights whose belief that human existence held no purpose and was being controlled by an invisible menace, Congo and his mates are only too proud to re-enact what they are convinced is the the reason and meaning for being: the Indonesian genocide of communists and ethnic Chinese.

Lighting up the theater with full-on steroidal brilliance is Herman Koto -- half his age, but best friend to Anwar Congo. Koto almost always arrives on scene in sparkling women's clothing, giant headdresses, makeup and jewelry. Years before, as a trainee of the Pancasila Youth, Indonesia's gangster para-military organization, Koto participated in its theater repertory. Pancasila does not recurit women, so just like the Greeks and Shakespeare's theater, male actors take on both male and female roles. (Koto was also a fan of Divine.) For his part, Koto's appearance and behavior temporarily throw a veil over the madness, softening the blows, and just as quickly turn around to dangle a burning magnifying glass over the massacres.

And this is how Congo begins to unravel. 

From L to R  
Local Pancasila commander,
Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry
Not during the re-enactments--not at first--but while watching himself on a monitor. In the beginning, Congo only worries that he might not have looked just right, that the shirt or pants he wore to the re-enactments were the wrong color; in later scenes you observe more of Congo's vanity as his hair changes from white to brown. As time goes on though, the killer reveals a slow disintegration. He says he has trouble sleeping, that he's visited by nightmares. As he continues to watch the footage, he looks unhappy, morose. In a penultimate scene, Congo loses it -- not going to spoil it for you here. At the Walker, Oppenheimer said that it wasn't remorse that Congo had been feeling, but a stirring of humanity. Congo was not aware that what he had done was wrong, but for the first time, HE felt wrong. Some months later I read that during one of their overseas conversations (Oppenheimer and Congo stay in touch by phone or Skype every few weeks), Congo said that it was time for him to die. Oppenheimer urged him to be positive, saying that he might live a long time yet, and that he could do worthwhile things with those years, his past notwithstanding.

Okay, that just makes me want to compare Oppenheimer to a modern-day Jesus. Not being religious, I still know that Jesus's message was positive, that we should love God and love one another.  He also said we should "judge not that ye be not judged," and that we should forgive "not seven times, 
but seven times seventy." Josh Oppenheimer may be the first person I've met that walked that talk.

Human beings are scattered on a continuum that starts at the top with Mahatma Gandhi and concludes at the bottom with -- fill in your own favorite world despot. It is rare and disturbing to hear killers and executioners tell their stories with pride and enthusiasm. The Indonesians of course, are protected by statutes of limitations for the crime of murder. When you listen to these septuagenarians talk about killing techniques while interacting with their families, even the skeptical among us has to stop and admit that we have much in common with them. It's frightening to think that humanity with its numerous needs and desires, vulnerabilities and defense mechanisms--and not sociopathy--can and does commit murder and genocide. But opening up to the idea also gives us a priceless opportunity to start talking about the origins of violence and the structures that trigger and aggravate them.  

For the Indonesian people, seeing The Act of Killing has begun to peel back layers of their smothered history. And it has led to a first-time ban on public boasting of the killings. Oppenheimer knew he could not chance a theatrical release of his film in Indonesia because once it was officially banned, then it would never be shown. In 2012, small groups of journalists and civil rights advocates began to gather in homes, offices, and tents to watch The Act of Killing. The word got out and the impromptu audiences began to swell as perceptions in Indonesia began to change. In England, a movement of Say Your Sorry Indonesia has begun. The film has been seen and distributed all over the world. People everywhere are talking about the massacres; this time not just about their justifications. 

Back to Obama

I still remember Obama's portrayal of his mother, Ann Dunham, in Dreams From My Father. Loving and progressive. An activist, social scientist - so why the freaking hell did she volunteer to live in the bosom of oppression and dictatorship so soon after the massacres? With our Barack! Was it simply that the light shone so brightly on Americans (because they covertly or the government did, helped finance the genocide), that she could not see any of the darkness? But how could anyone not see? Weren't people still dancing in the streets? Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! 
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.

Every morning before going to work, this woman got herself and her son up at the crack of down so she could enhance her son's education with correspondence courses in English, recordings of Mahalia Jackson, and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. After four years, when her precocious son outgrew his mother's and the private school's teachings, Dunham sent Barak back to Hawaii. But what kept her in Indonesia for  another year? Was it love? Or something more sinister? Thanks to the brilliance of the country's propaganda machine, had Dunham, like everyone else around her, become wholly and utterly desensitized to the violence?

Watch and listen as Werner Hersog and Errol Morris talk about the film

The Act of Killing has been nominated for an Oscar, and as one of the best films of 2013 by various film critics. It is available for rental or sale on through Amazon.

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