History is written by the victors, and many of the victories in human history have come at the hands of genocide. It isn’t a comforting fact, but the settling of many of the most powerful countries in the world came with the blood of large portions of population (I’m not exactly a history person (though I play one for my job), so this is a large generality). America was born of just such a genocide of Native Americans that we now regard as the horrible event that it was, but it also allowed the land to be settled and developed in the way that we know it today. You can really argue either way on the issue, but the adage from Lenin rings true, ‘10 deaths are a tragedy, 100,000 deaths are a statistic.’ One of the unifying traits of these genocides that led to the modern world as we know it is just how separated we are from them. After a hundred or so years it becomes something you learn in a history book but nothing that touches your life in any tangible way. That is what is truly amazing about Joshua Oppenheimer’s double-feature about the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence), you get to see not only the victims in the aftermath, but how the perpetrators feel about what they have done.
Oppenheimer's film The Act of Killing takes a premise so genius but simple that it's surprising it had not been attempted before: he takes some of the major players from the Indonesian genocide of 'communists' (generally any sort of political dissident, or someone considered threatening by the government) and gives them the tools to make a film that represents how they remember the killings they perpetrated. The main characters of the film are Anwar Congo, a legend in the government sponsored paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila who still enjoys the fame and respect of his bloody past, and Herman Koto, a somewhat dimmer figure who does not hide his penchant for organized crime. But, then again, it seems that the entire country functions on a government sanctioned version of organized crime. At a Pemuda Pancasila rally the speaker relates what seems like a common refrain from the group, that they are called 'gangsters' but gangsters means 'free men' and free men are the ones who help liberate the country. We also follow Herman's short run for a seat in government which he loses by not being able to pay people for votes. This is just the way their world functions and this is the most important thing the film suggests, that we cannot possibly understand the Indonesian culture through our westernized values, even as the Indonesians strive for their own strange sort of westernization.
What is truly amazing at the center of The Act of Killing is watching Anwar Congo recount his time murdering (by his count) 1,000's of 'communists'. He is now an elderly man, though in relatively good shape. As he talks about his past he seems to evoke sympathy for his violent past, but he also seems like he's going through the motions, talking about his bad dreams at night and how he tries to forget about his misdeeds by drinking 'maybe a little too much' and going out dancing at night. There is one harrowing scene where he reenacts his signature form of killing (with a thin metal wire tied to a piece of wood that would be attached to a pole and then used to strangle people as he pulls the wire from the other side) on a friend, on the same rooftop where he murdered hoards of people, all right after he gleefully shows off his dancing. The disconnect between his attempts to act sympathetic and the sheer excitement that comes through as he recounts his killings is jarring, at best.
What is even more intriguing than the almost sociopathic feel you get from Anwar is how, after going through the process of making the film and wallowing in all of these memories, you see him slowly start to break. As opposed to the eccentric smile he displays while reenacting the choking mechanism he 'invented', there is a scene later where he plays one of the 'communists' he would have been interrogating in the government office. Herman uses the coil-tied-to-wood killing method on Anwar and as the scene plays out Anwar starts to feel light-headed. When they try for a second time, Anwar stops halfway through the scene, saying 'I can not do it again," bowing his head, not speaking, and looking physically ill, if not on the verge of tears. A little later Anwar revisits the killing rooftop from earlier, but this time he is somber and begins to retch as he recounts his deeds. It is amazing to watch as this man, who has been propped up by society for the murder of 'communists', slowly comes to the realization of the horrors that he has inflicted, even if he does not completely understand them. It is a supremely human moment, especially coming from a man we would rightfully consider a monster.
As you watch The Act of Killing you see Anwar, who for all intents and purpose seems fine with the killing he has perpetrated, and watch him slowly immerse himself not only back into that mind frame, but putting himself, empathetically, into the role of the one being killed. You also watch as this act breaks him. It becomes a strange transformation as he seemingly only pays lip service to the idea of being haunted by the ghosts of his past, to the point where he becomes physically revolted by those same acts, even if he can't quite vocalize why this is. It is a strange reversal-of-roll for the film Anwar is creating as well. Film (and literature and art in general) plays a part in helping develop empathy, as it forces you into a worldview of another person, one which you then have to rectify with your own. In Anwar’s case he is creating a film where he wants to show his impression of his part in the genocide, which happens to be in a very glorified, almost action movie’esque sense. What ends up happening is that he puts himself in the shoes of the killed and for the first time sees the fears and reservations that they must have had, and for the first time you see as he begins to doubt himself. It is a harrowing moment and one that points towards the humanity that lies within all of us, even the most despicable.
The Act of Killing is immersed in humanity, although a skewed version of it. As I mentioned, it is almost incomprehensible how little human life is regarded in the Indonesian society we see, as Pemuda Pancasila soldiers (including Anwar) appear on television shows where the hosts get roaring applause at the mention of the eradication of the 'communists'. It is hard to say where the fault lies when no one sees a problem with what has happened, and the actions are still promoted and propagandized by the government. Humans are easily misled as we tend to want to follow the crowd, being social animals. What is amazing is watching someone break through this socialized nature and find something beneath that is far more human, but is it enough? The end of The Act of Killing shows the final scene of Anwar's movie, where he stands in front of a waterfall with dancers scattered in the foreground. A man representing the ghosts of one of those that Anwar has killed hands him a medal and says, while putting the medal around his neck, "Thank you for killing me and send me to heaven." Maybe the more amazing part is the mental backflips we can do to excuse our behavior. But more about that with The Look of Silence.