‘The Act of Killing’ reflects haunting power of documentaries

The Act of Killing reflects haunting power of documentaries

The Act of Killing, as its title suggests, is an intense film. It’s powerful, thought-provoking, thought-consuming, even disturbing. You need a period of time to recover from it afterwards.
In the start, though, it’s just strange. The entire premise of the documentary is about ‘gangsters’ who carried out genocide 40 years ago, wiping suspected Communists and the Chinese out of Indonesia. This ‘wiping out’ is through brutal mass murder. These former killers act out various scenes to reenact their glory days, and it is horrifying to realize how much they still celebrate the power and sadism of killing. They walk with pride at how much fear they once inspired.
The main character, named Anwar, has nightmares, which he admits may be caused by the guilt of killing around 1000 people. In the daytime, though, Anwar dances at the site where he once carried out the murders, singing out the tune and smiling as he explains the effects of Hollywood movies on his killing techniques.
Other members of the modern day ‘paramilitaries’ openly discuss and celebrate the corruption that still allows them to intimidate money out of citizens and the enjoyment they got from raping Communist women, especially if they are “just 14 years old,” they say. It is just unreal to hear these men revel in their horrific actions, to be completely unaware of just how horrific they were, then to go home and treat their families with such affection. In one moment, they seem like the most inhumane people in the world, like they are a completely different class of ‘human’ than you or me; in the next moment, they are watching television with their grandsons perched on their knees.
You want to like Anwar because he is soft-spoken and dignified, with the lovability of old age. You want to hate him because he is unrepentant and unaware, with the sadism of a mass murderer. He loves gangster films “because he is one,” director Joshua Oppenheimer said after the film, and he loves musicals. He is very much human, and it’s kind of scary to think that humans are not evil, but they are capable of such evil actions. And though he is very much a member of a society that celebrates genocide, Oppenheimer said, the audience can see that Anwar has nightmares about his actions, even if he can’t admit that what he did was wrong.
Slowly, though, those societal scars become obvious. In reenactments, children who cry as part of the act somehow cannot stop weeping; an old woman, after an intense scene of a fire burning down a village, is not unconscious but is also not present — she was ‘possessed,’ Oppenheimer said; Anwar himself, now seated in the victim’s chair rather than the executioner’s, says he cannot act out that scene again. He asks Joshua whether his victims felt the debilitating destroyal of dignity and fear for their lives that he himself felt in that reenactment; no, Joshua answers, they felt that terror much more acutely because they knew it was real, while Anwar knew he was acting.
Sitting in the audience, it was overpowering to see that realization progress.
“I think it is somewhat inevitable, when you make a film about the aftermath of genocide, particularly one where you’re trying to break a 47 year silence in a regime that’s a regime of fear, that’s founded on celebration of genocide,” Oppenheimer said, “there’s no way you can do that honestly and remain somehow not overwhelmed by the process.”
One of the film’s final scenes is so overwhelming, disturbing and powerful that we feel the pain of Anwar understanding and accepting the enormity of what he did.
I wondered whether Anwar would have been better off had he not made the film, had he continued to live with nightmares and unconscious guilt, had he not faced the pain of the truth. I asked Oppenheimer afterwards, the last question of the Q&A session, and he said that Anwar, in a sense, came into the project with the motive or realizing and letting go of that confession. In the safe space of acting, Anwar could address and work through the consequences of killing all those people, but then he could go home and resume his life.
Oppenheimer said Anwar had seen the film and did not regret making it, and even though it consumed my mind, I certainly did not regret seeing it.
Catch The Act of Killing, perhaps the most powerful film of the festival, for its last screening today, Sunday the 3rd, at 3 p.m. at the Forrest Theater.
By Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj