evolving ecological media culture(s)

Letting the devil make his own movie


The class went on a field trip to see The Act of Killing last week, which fit our reading of Chapter 4 of Ecologies of the Moving Image better than I could have planned. (That’s the chapter that deals with “anthropomorphism,” that is, the “becomings-human” — or “becoming-subjective” — within the world of a film.)

The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary about the perpetrators of the mass murders committed by the Suharto regime’s paramilitary death squads in mid-1960s Indonesia. The filmmakers interview some of the worst of the perpetrators and — controversially — invite them to re-enact the killings for the camera, filming these scenes in the style of their favorite film genres. This interplay between mass murder and Hollywood movies — gangsters, westerns, and musicals — is a focus of the film.

(It’s no coincidence that the term “gangster” is a source of pride for these petty-criminals-turned-death-squad-leaders. Indonesia was a gangster state. You might say the film raises the question of whether popular cinema has created gangster states all around the world. Perhaps it has. Back to that shortly.)

My assignment to the class was to answer the following two-part question:

1. What are the main ethical questions that the film “The Act of Killing” raised for you?

2. (a) From what you know — based on the film itself, the after-screening Q & A, and/or readings you’ve found about it online — how does the film itself answer these questions? (b) Alternatively (if you missed the Q & A), how would you, as a viewer, go about answering these questions for the film?  (Note that by “how does the film itself answer these questions?” I don’t mean that you should only consider what’s in the film that you saw. Consider also the process of making and distributing the film.)

A student wrote to ask for clarification on question 2 (b). Here’s what I shared with the class in response:

If a single viewing of the film raises certain ethical or moral questions for you (which it doesn’t answer for you in the course of that viewing), how would you find out whether and how the film as a whole — its production, distribution, aftermath, etc. — might deal with these questions?

Recall the process-relational definition of film proposed by the book: “a film is what a film does.” This means that a film doesn’t end with a single viewing. Its effects on the world — materially, socially, and perceptually — begin before the filmmakers start to shoot scenes at the shooting location(s), and end long after the credits have rolled in the theater where you’ve just seen it. Your own viewing of it is just one single viewer’s response. Other people, and other audiences, may respond quite differently. A film like this would obviously have a different impact depending on where it is shown (e.g., to U.S. festival audiences, to Indonesian audiences consisting of the families of perpetrators or the families of victims/survivors, etc.), on how it is made available, on the contexts within which it is discussed and made sense of, and so on.

If you missed the Q & A which discussed these issues directly, then the question for you is: how would you go about finding this out? There’s an easy answer to that (“google it”), but I’d like to hear more creativity than that. The answer for question #2, in any case, will depend on your answer for question #1 (i.e., what the moral/ethical questions are that the film raises).

In the post-screening Q & A with producer Signe Byrge Sorensen, students would have found out that the process of making the film took many years and involved work with survivors and their families. It was they who suggested that Oppenheimer ask the perpetrators about the killings directly. The strategy of allowing the latter to stage and re-enact the killings was intended to involve them in the film — to in effect get their buy-in — so that the question of this violent episode in Indonesian history could be discussed and re-examined in a public way. Many believe it’s long overdue (and there’s evidence that that’s beginning to happen).

Oppenheimer has said that he gained the two main perpetrators’ trust because of his being an American. The U.S., after all, consistently supported and even encouraged the anti-communist violence. “They loved American movies and Americans… When I arrived, they just assumed ‘Oh, this guy must love us.’ ”

In effect, the film gave the devil a microphone — but didn’t let the devil run the show. That’s a delicate balancing act, and the post-production strategy in Indonesia has been to disseminate the film first among local community organizations (including survivors’ groups), then among the Indonesian media (which have begun writing about the killings openly, for the first time in decades, as I understand it). The film has now been made available for free download across Indonesia.

We had some discussion in class about whether the film is “really” about Indonesia or if its themes are  universal. (It could, of course, be both.) The problem with the “universal” interpretation is that it does, after all, portray people involved with very individual, very specific and intimate crimes — murders of actual people. That these are judged to have been “crimes against humanity” (though not in Indonesia, yet) does not make them any less real for the individuals and families directly affected.

What does it say, then, about the “anthropomorphism” (in the EMI sense of the word) — the becoming-human — of those portrayed? And of the film? And of movies in general?

There are many ways to become human. In a society in which becoming-human requires condoning, carrying out, and even celebrating such atrocities, the human becomes a killing machine. Movies, the film suggests, can and have contributed to that. The gangster state of Suharto-era Indonesia was, to some degree it would seem, a creation of Hollywood. The film is, as the film’s website puts it, about “A love of cinema“:

In their youth, Anwar and his friends spent their lives at the movies, for they were “movie theatre gangsters”: they controlled a black market in tickets, while using the cinema as a base of operations for more serious crimes. In 1965, the army recruited them to form death squads because they had a proven capacity for violence, and they hated the communists for boycotting American films – the most popular (and profitable) in the cinemas. Anwar and his friends were devoted fans of James Dean, John Wayne, and Victor Mature. They explicitly fashioned themselves and their methods of murder after their Hollywood idols. And coming out of the midnight show, they felt “just like gangsters who stepped off the screen”. In this heady mood, they strolled across the boulevard to their office and killed their nightly quota of prisoners. Borrowing his technique from a mafia movie, Anwar preferred to strangle his victims with wire.

The challenge taken on by this film is how to counter-act that. But it is not a counter-action through direct resistance or even a documentary counter-attack; that could have happened 45 years ago, perhaps, but it did not. (Peter Weir’s 1982 drama The Year of Living Dangerously, about a love affair between a foreign journalist and an Indonesian woman at the time of the overthrow of President Sukarno, was banned in Indonesia until 1999.) With a history of obfuscation as thick and long as this, one must use other means.

So here, it is through a cinematic slicing into the layers of spectacle, propaganda narrative, self-celebratory hype, and emotional self-concealment. Oppenheimer and his team take their cameras right into the heart of the beast — primarily Anwar Congo, but also a few others, and by extension the whole paramilitary campaign that carried out the massacres — under a veil of sympathy, so as to allow that beast to confront his own flatulent mythmaking and expose any doubts that might emerge in the process.

I’m not sure that Congo et al. deserve the time and stage space they are given here. In fact, I’m sure they don’t. But in the context of a history that’s far from recognizing their actions as the atrocities that they were, I’m also not sure what other way there is to begin a nationwide process of dialogue and, one may hope, ultimate societal healing. Every society that undergoes such trauma — and the Cold War’s division of much of the Third World into two armed camps resulted in many such societies — must find its own means of reconciliation (which many have never done, to date).

The film, to the extent that it succeeds in its objectives, counterposes two visions of cinema, and two “anthropomorphoses” of the cinematic human. One of them glorifies gangsterism, violence, and the spectacle of slaughter — all of which popular movies have done all too well over the last century. The other probes, somewhat hesitantly and perhaps all too respectfully, but ultimately very courageously, into the heart of the first, worming its way under its skin so as to unveil the corruption at its core.

The result is a twisted vision of cinema interrogating its own unconscious. At least that’s how I see the effort in this film. It succeeds to a powerful degree, if perhaps not entirely. I’m curious to know what others think about that, and what will come of it in Indonesia.


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