Friday, August 2, 2013

The Face of Evil -- Reflections on "The Act of Killing" (2013)


What does true evil look like? Is it the demonically possessed face of Linda Blair, or more recently, Lili Taylor? Is it a redneck in a mask made of human flesh? A cannibal in a business suit?

True evil is the reflection we see in the mirror: unaware, oblivious, unrecognizable. It lurks inside each of us, in our hearts and minds, just waiting for the opportunity to be unleashed. Plato wrote:

“Those who practice justice do so involuntarily because they do not have the power to be unjust. Imagine that we can give the just man and the unjust man the ability to do whatever they will. Let us watch them and see where desire will lead them. Then we will discover that they walk along the same road, follow their own interest which all men naturally deem to be their greatest good, and are only diverted onto the path of justice by fear of the law.”

When there is no accountability, men will do whatever is in their own best interest for the sake of “the greater good,” which is really only selfish reward. Without laws to govern us and keep us honest, the weak will become the victims of the strong, and the only morality will be that which is defined by those with the most power.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing reveals this philosophical argument by telling the stories of a few men who were at the center of genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66. Over a million people were senselessly slaughtered when a new military regime took power. To the new dictatorship, these people were “Communists,” representing a threat to the state. Local gangsters and paramilitary leaders were employed to carry out the business of death and took to it with horrible efficiency, callousness, and style.

One of these killers is a gangster named Anwar Congo. He is a charismatic old man with spider like features, creepy dentures, and a love for Hollywood cinema. With detached joy, he tells us about the killings he oversaw, how he helped develop the wire strangulation technique that solved messy bloodlettings, and the way movies influenced his fashion and sadism. Early in the film, Anwar is a frightening figure, his stories made more disturbing by the glee in his telling. Yet, he is haunted by nightmares, which he thinks may be caused by one particular death in which he failed to close the eyes on a head he severed.

Oppenheimer’s film would be a pretty compelling documentary if it were just a character study, or a history lesson about a period in global history of which many in the western world are probably not aware. But he has greater aims here. He collaborates with Congo and his friends to help them recreate their experiences during the genocide in whichever cinematic genres they desire. The killers, obsessed with Hollywood cinema, take to this with joy, creating scenes that mimic war films, gangster crime dramas, musicals, and westerns. Not only does this decision create opportunities for authentic interaction between the participants, it fully reveals the state of mind of men responsible for mass murder.

These are men who believed themselves to be heroes. They were John Wayne, liberating their nation in the name of truth and justice. They were gangsters, or “free men” as the term is continually defined by politicians, living as they choose and making their country safe from outsiders. From their perspective, this was nothing to lose sleep over, nothing to feel guilty about; their country needed them to eliminate undesirables who sought to destroy their ways of life, and they did so out of duty and desire. One of the killers, Adi Zulkadry, puts it this way: “When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. [Bush claimed] Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right, according to Bush, but now it's wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be today's morality, but tomorrow we'll have the Jakarta Conventions…

The face of true evil does not see itself as evil. It sees itself as fully justified, doing things for the greater good. Killing millions looks bad, sure, but it saved a nation according to those in power. And it also brought the killers fame and notoriety. Anwar Congo is a celebrity in his country, and he and his friends make this film and openly talk about their crimes against humanity because they do not feel shame in their choices. At one point, another of Anwar’s associates, Safit Pardede, boasts to a group of friends about the 14-year old girls he raped in the Communist villages: “I told them it will be hell for you but heaven for me.” He tells this story as naturally as we share our funny, interesting anecdotes with friends over summer barbeque.

Yet, The Act of Killing is at its best when it avoids judgment of these men. As we watch Anwar walk them through a scene visualizing his nightmares, or when he re-watches a clip of himself in the role of a victim being interrogated and murdered, we find ourselves sympathizing with him. If the film had merely set up its story for us to look down on these men for being so brutal and sadistic, it would have no power. Of course they’re bad guys. Bad guys are easy to objectify and hate. Instead, we are given clear pictures of these men’s’ lives, their reasons for what they did, and how, in many ways, they were pawns of a government (assisted financially by the U.S. and other western nations during the genocide) devoted to solidifying power through fear and death. Not being able to judge these men is the most disturbing element of the film – and lends such incredible power to that emotionally powerful moment when watching the interrogation clip causes Anwar to have a personal revelation about the nature of his soul.

As a documentary, The Act of Killing is something new and unique. We’ve had many documentary films over the years devoted to chronicling the most insidious people and institutions in our world; Holocaust documentaries are legion, and others have been made about Darfur, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Instead of reporting the facts, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, or contorting information as a political statement, Oppenheimer collaborates with his subjects to create art which imitates both life and art.

The Act of Killing is truly a postmodern work of documentary filmmaking, yet without the irony and satire that are hallmarks of this era. It is sincere, passionate, and inspired. It is revolutionary in form and content. The only documentary in recent memory that has come close in form is Exit through the Gift Shop, which was also a collaboration between filmmaker and subject, yet that film was meant as a feature length practical joke, satirizing the simple minded approach of most documentaries; it lacked the universal themes and scale of The Act of Killing.

On a personal level, this film really disturbed me. I couldn’t leave my seat right away after the credits – many of which were attributed to “anonymous”. The final moments of the film are jarring, unresolved, lacking catharsis, and left me devastated. Alone, Anwar Congo revisits the place where he had personally killed hundreds of people. Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by the reality of what he had done, and he turns to vomit. The retching sounds are horrific, and seem to continue forever, but nothing comes out of him. It’s as if the evil can’t leave him. He may want the sort of heroic redemption the lie of Hollywood films promise, but there is none to be had.


Five of the people in attendance at my screening left near the end. If asked why, I imagine they’d just say they didn’t like it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if what they didn’t like was not being allowed to thoroughly hate the face of evil on screen. After all, it’s hard to hate your own.

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