‘The Act of Killing’: Transforming Documentary Exposing the Banality of Terror

‘The Act of Killing’ Plays in New York City at Landmark Sunshine CinemaTICKETS

Alternative documentarian and genocide scholar Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest foray into the metaphysical origins of an Indonesian intimidation culture is the genre transforming representation of personal catharsis ‘The Act of Killing’ (currently in limited release). With unquestioned international respect, the film has comfortably secured its position as preeminent documentary of 2013. From the Berlinalle to the Sheffield DocFest, Telluride to Toronto, as well as holding unwavering fanship from the likes of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog (each credited as Executive Producers), ‘The Act of Killing’ represents so much more than another leftist expose of modern imperialism’s tactics of deceit and moral ambiguity for the sake of an internationally beneficial “world economy”.  The documentary’s power lies within its objectivity. Topics of  heightened emotional response such as torture, rape, mass killings and genocide are treated as the result of the engrained approval of the 20th century pursuit of Western exceptionalism, and not as an accepted act of evil (a subjective term in itself born from history’s other great deceiver: religion).

The Act of Killing’ primarily follows former paramilitary leader Anwar Congo, who personally killed over 1000 communist “sympathizers” and was indirectly involved in the murder of nearly 1 million others. Nothing more than the local “movie house gangsters”, Anwar and his thugs have been viewed for half a century closer in stature to George Washington than to John Gotti by a deeply propagated population, government and media complex. With metal wire strangulation as the preferred killing method, Anwar revels in his past, literally cha- cha’ing over sites of mass terror.  Throughout Indonesia, Anwar is revered as something of a cultural icon, a right- wing gangster hero.  The banality by which Anwar (and company) describe their role in this nightmarish hellscape, as well as their general admiration by the society, may very well yield initial feelings of disbelief, confusion and even anger.  Yet, as ‘The Act of Killing’ unfolds, its genial utilization of filmmaking power not only objectively documents a personal struggle, but also clearly defines the far-reaching affects of excess culture and materialism’s inevitable nullification of moral structure.

As Anwar and right hand man Adi Zulkadry are introduced, they immediately indulge in stories of cinematic idolization, particularly from the golden age of American studio cinema. The pulpy gangster tropes of the 40s noir, the libertarian ideals of the Wild, Wild West, the zany surrealism of the musical directly interest these two men throughout their superficial actuality. In truth however, the visual dynamic of the fictional blends subliminally into the affective repercussions of reality.  Suddenly the tropes of film noir stray away from Chiaroscuro lighting and double-breasted overcoats, and the focus is on the incessant struggle for power and the means by which man is willing to acquire it.  Anwar and Adi openly discuss the translation of on- screen action to real life terror with ease and joy. They explain that the rewards reaped through a lawless approach to intimidation come from the safety of cinema’s monotone production protocol.  Whether or not this dichotomy is wholly understood is never discussed. Yet, the undeniable truth behind Anwar’s love of Hollywood excess and the Meta world it ultimately depicts directly affected the reality of a nation, people and culture.  The atrocious human rights disaster that resulted from the inability to understand the difference between the two worlds lies within the peripheral minds it aims to control.

Oppenheimers’ previous venture into both Indonesia and meta documentary ‘The Globalization Tapes’ introduced a powerful technique of objective narrative; one where the emotional nature of subject is not only objectified through structure, but also creates an increased space for the filmmakers to speculate without having to insinuate (in dangerous situations such as this a major tool for, at least, structural originality).  In this case, Anwar and his men, possibly yielding increased moral volatility toward the crew, could very easily construe any identification of speculative intent as counter productive.  As the Indonesian consensus on Anwar’s greatest societal contribution is the youth militia, Pemuda Pancasila and its unquestioned claim in the societal hierarchy, even the vaguest thoughts of insubordination could (perhaps) yield Joshua’s own head within the wired constriction Pemuda Pancasila so enjoyed.

In order to successfully capture any iota of internal strife against such external horror, Oppenheimer used all aspects of the documentary medium and blended them with a powerful effect.  The specifics of history, the subliminal influence of aesthetics, the evolving nature of an organic psyche, the acceptance of materialistic egoism, all admittedly abstract concepts, hybridize into an honest portrait of the 20th century condition.  All too frequently do noble intentions behind bridging the abstract with absolute, the dangerous and the impervious, fall victim to the subjective agenda of a filmmaker (who is also forced to accept the abstract limitations of capital’s constriction on creativity).  Snappy editing and faux-journalistic trickery often holds the weight, when tactics of documentary- based scare- mongering precariously overshadow the true capabilities of the medium.  Here, multi dimensional human beings aging, maturing, and understanding replace talking heads.  Restrained observance replaces subjective exaggeration, thus creating a portrait of existential dilemma.

At its most macro, ‘The Act of Killing’ is an observational look at the magnitude of capital hyperbole, its intangibles engraining themselves within the psyche of a generation (on this level, the entire nation of Indonesia falls victim).  At its micro, it is a powerful representation of one man’s internal struggle, providing a refreshing reminder of inherent morality’s actual existence.  Anwar -the -monster becomes Anwar- the -man, no more a monster than a corner Brooklyn drug dealer (himself the victim of an omnipotent, elitist propagated stranglehold on the uninformed and impressionable).  This is not to justify, but rather to explain by way of a single explicit example in intellectual evolution, from superficial acceptance of material existence to rational processing of thought.

Firmly cementing its place within the annals of transformative documentary alongside   ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Man on Wire’ and Errol Morris’ own ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘The Act of Killing’ is a pure example of the power of art, cinema and the distinctly NON-finite reality of intellect, maturation and self-evolution.  As Indonesian scholar Soe Tjen Marching wisely points out , it is in the apparent banality of Anwar’s personal evil where the most striking transformations take place.  With Joshua Oppenheimer’s allowing Anwar to effectively tell his own tale, from his own memory, using his own medium, this transformation is able to appear before one’s very eyes, giving insight into (what is, in fact) conformist banality toward terror.

– Steve Rickinson  
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