Monday, February 24, 2014

The Act of Killing

2012, Denmark/Norway/UK, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

A troubling film on many levels: most obviously in terms of its content, which includes interviews with members of Indonesian death squads from the 1960s, and their relationship to the paramilitary forces that seem to play a major part in Indonesian politics today. But also discomfiting for the questions it raises about the documentarian's role and the context in which the film was shot. While there is some effort to provide the historical context of Indonesia in the 1960s, we gain virtually no insights into the processes that led to the rather extraordinary collaboration between Oppenheimer and his subjects except to deduce, from the tone of the back and forth, that they know one another quite well.

The men re-enact some of the worst of their atrocities, initially in the most straightforward way possible, taking us to the actual locations and demonstrating how they, for instance, strangled a person. Subsequently, though, they engage in full-on dramatizations: scenes of actual interrogations as filtered through the participants' imaginations, and quite consciously taking on the stylings of Hollywood movies. At times, the participants make reference to the fact that they are, themselves, making a film, and it's not always clear where Oppenheimer stands in relation to that process. 

In many ways, the Hollywoodization of the atrocities is entirely apt, for many of the death squad members got their start as movie ticket gangsters -- selling black market tickets to movie-goers -- and in one especially chilling sequence, Anwar Congo shimmies across a street in the present day, remembering his younger self emerging, ecstatic, from an Elvis Presley flick, before crossing the street and resuming the brutality in an interrogation center just steps from the movie theatre. Last year, while doing research on the American movie industry in Africa, I saw files on their efforts to expand the Indonesian market in the 1960s, and one wonders to what extent Hollywood was at least aware of, if not complicit with, the gangsterism surrounding its business activities. 

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States