Born Free: Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing"
“I know my bad dreams came from what I did. Killing people who didn’t want to die. I forced them to die.” -Anwar Congo
(This writing on THE ACT OF KILLING is based on the 115-minute theatrical cut of Joshua Oppenheimer's film, distributed throughout specialty cinemas in the United States. It's one of 2013's best films and the most unsettling. However, the 160-minute director's cut, presented at such venues as The Walker Art Center, is immensely superior, and, more than the best motion picture of 2013, will probably be considered one of the best motion pictures ever made, period).
Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary The Act of Killing is an exposé of a person’s soul, or as the filmmaker calls it, “a documentary of the imagination.” Its images and staged recreations of 50-year-old atrocities are probably less illuminating about concrete historical incidents than they are about the veiled and jagged contours of the perpetrators’ inner lives. This is a film that understands the power of images, the viewfinder reaching inward, the undertaking an exercise in psychological voyeurism not only taking us into the mystery of a mass killing, but also the dark heart of how we now, presently, reflect on the creation and ingestion of moving images – how they influence us, how we see ourselves in them, and how we want to use them to project our inner lives. In filmmaking, a monument is given to memory, and the anti-heroes in The Act of Killing are play-acting through memories quite happily, emulating the Hollywood films that inspired and entertained them. But we also see how the process of “seeing” may, Hamlet-like, set up the mousetrap to catch conscience and provoke a deep and painful reflection. The film forces us to excavate this mystery further, transcending its setting with perennial exhortations of identity and guilt. Is the guilt real, when heinous past deeds have given power and happiness? Or is it performative, even in cloistered intimacy with only the watchful gaze of one’s conscience?
Danse macabre at the beginning and end of civilization: Lake Toba in "The Act of Killing"
Oppenheimer’s main subject is Anwar Congo, a leisurely and genteel grandfather who observes his haughtier peers with searching eyes, his relaxed walk exuding control and sage-like calm, but also muted lethality. This man is a killer made by — and made for — the movies. Cinema has bookended his existence as a gangster. Unable to find normal work as a youth, he scalped tickets outside of a theater, falling in love with the Hollywood films that featured masculine Western icons he would emulate, like John Wayne and Marlon Brando. He appropriated the postures and techniques of movie murderers for the state-sanctioned killing of over 1000 people during the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, when over a million so-called “communists” were exterminated by paramilitary officials and gangsters like him. He would sometimes exit a movie theater, dancing giddily across the street with Elvis songs running in his head, and proceed to torture and murder — “happily” — his victims who were detained in a building across the street. With his bloated and ridiculously outspoken gangster friend Herman Koto, he mentions how the leftists were responsible for banning the Hollywood films that not only entertained him, but also gave him bigger profits as a scalper. Murdering them could have been the vengeance of the most opportunistic and outrageous of film programmers.
The Odd Couple: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, on the street where they scalped tickets for Hollywood films.
Now he’s the guiding hand of his own motion picture, trying to accurately recreate those brutal years. With Oppenheimer’s funds, Anwar and his friends gladly are starring in a film about what happened in 1965. Anwar might be luring in his audience by comparing the “action” here to what you’d see in a James Bond movie. He also grasps the morbid sadism of a commercial audience, claiming that he can make something more sadistic than any film about Nazi atrocities. Though the grueling gangland violence of The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, and Scarface came years after the genocide, his name-dropping of Brando and Pacino indicates how those pictures reinforced his tastes, and as such films glamorized the gangster life, he insinuates that, if the result is accurate, his life story will be equally entertaining.
"There are many ghosts here."
A fan of these iconic gangster films myself, I’ve always been somewhat convinced that they’ve been unfortunately misunderstood and hijacked from their true themes of dehumanization. Businessmen, drug dealers, and military strategists idolize the Corleones and Tony Montana for their surfaces showcasing success. Anwar appears to be no exception. Yet at times caught unaware of Oppenheimer’s camera, we observe a more thoughtful and enigmatic individual. His story shares something else with those aforementioned motion pictures: a sense of operatic tragedy alluding to the hollow and dark side of success, the empty void in the center of prosperity and “freedom.” Surrounded by a web of remarkable characters, Anwar Congo is no less compelling as a dramatic figure than Michael Corleone through The Godfather trilogy, or Henry Hill in Goodfellas, if not, as executive producer Errol Morris has pointed out, the tragic figures of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, two individuals representative of the insolubility of identity: we ask “who’s there?” and there’s always another layer of the onion to peel away before we have nothing at all.
Ridiculous and sublime: Anwar's victims returning as ghosts.
Throughout The Act of Killing, Anwar is not only a mystery to us. Does he even know what’s driving him? We’re uncertain of his motives, which appear distinct from his peers, who are uniformly less conscientious of their history, of their “karma,” of eternity. Like Michael Corleone, Anwar is a man held in deep respect by his society, in love with his comforts and sensitive to family matters. But as mortality becomes a very real thing, he’s restlessly haunted.
He’s swimming between the sacred and profane, and the film likewise wavers on an unsteady–and unsettling–beam of simulation and reality, true horror and staged performance, with all the blurriness between them. We wonder what scenes and utterances are real and what’s scripted. Much of it we’ve seen before in other films. A rapacious and repugnant thug passive aggressively demands money pay-offs from Chinese merchants, so much like the “Black Hand,” Don Fanucci, in Godfather II. Is this happening now or is it a recreation of what these men saw as “the good old days”? The merchants give odd smiles after they’ve hesitantly handed over money, as if they were awkwardly gripped by the camera’s vice-glare. Wearing fedora hats and smoking cigars, Anwar and Herman act out an interrogation scene, lit like a noir crime film. As the moment of strangulation approaches, Anwar breaks, noting, “It’s morning prayers.” There’s something observant about him (the director's cut--40 minutes longer and exponentially superior to this already fantastic film--has Anwar talking about how his mother instructed him to pray as a child), and we have other hints denoting an uneasy and strained relationship with something “eternal,” permanent, spiritual. During this break and pacing between shadows he gives a speech which he recites so assuredly that we wonder if it can’t be scripted. “Human rights. All this talk about ‘human rights’ pisses me off. We want a little human rights. Back then there was no human rights.” Is he wary of international law coming down on men like him, who prospered at a time when “human rights” weren’t an option? Trying to convince himself of legitimacy? Or playing his role as “a movie theater gangster, a free man.”
A very "Black Hand" moment from "The Act of Killing," as Chinese merchants are forced to pay off paramilitary enforcers.
But the darkness around him, swallowing his face, betrays his words just as they corroborate them. His foil in this film is a man named Adi Zulkadry, who speaks of the transitory hollowness of language in international law, especially when other genocides perpetrated by winners — the Native Americans, segregation, the British Empire, Belgian colonialism — go unpunished. Both Anwar and Adi are right about the emptiness of language, the performative stage act which leads politicians to become “soap opera actors,” something we hear while Herman runs for parliament–the thuggish killer of union leaders now claiming to fight for worker’s rights, our villain wearing a Transformers good-guy Autobot t-shirt.
As with Shakespeare where tyrants’ sins are manifest in apparitions–Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III–Anwar sees ghosts. He takes Oppenheimer’s camera on a tour through a building rooftop where a thousand people died “unnatural deaths.” He says, “There’s many ghosts here.” He’s been having bad dreams where the dead linger with hateful visages. He’s staged his murders and interrogations like the lurid gangster film, but we also see scenes that look like Westerns, and the spectacle of a consoling heaven as Bollywood musical number, the philosophy of being “free” affirmed as Anwar and company dance with thankful victims, “Born Free” on the soundtrack. He films his nightmares, overseeing one of his peers in heavy makeup and a freakish costume, playing the cackling ghost who won’t let Anwar sleep. “But I killed you!” Anwar cries, pointing a finger as the film crew looks on. The ghost is not terrifying or sad. Rather, the vengeance of the dead is absurd, ridiculous, even hilarious. Because Anwar is tortured by the reality of what he's done, he cannot simulate it correctly.
Anwar Congo plays out his nightmares for the camera, Herman in drag looking on.
Notice how between takes Oppenheimer cuts to Anwar alone on his bed, imprisoned in the camera’s frame and visibly wrestling with the source of his hackneyed script-writing. The artifice of filmmaking is a buffer for him, assuaging guilt as he processes his deeds. He cannot reconcile the purposeful terrain of artistic representation with the terrible corporeal reality of the what he’s done — stage blood doesn’t become real blood any more than wine does during Mass. Off the set, he’s still a respected man whose reputation is built on corpses who were efficiently dispatched with piano wire and then dumped in ditches. He can show his grandchildren the images of his crulety and teach them lessons of kindness as a limping duck passes by. But this is “only a film.” The dead are still dead, and they knew they would die and that they were powerless. Anwar’s masochistic endeavor — going so far as to act as one of his victims — is futile and troubling, whether or not “terror possesses his body” while it’s happening. I don’t think Anwar is simulating remorse for us, but I do question whether or not he’s doing it so that he can live with himself.
Propaganda kept the political officials for whom Congo killed in power to this day (another excision from the theatrical version shows one of brutal, anti-communist films children were forced to watch; the red overtly artificial blood can't help but remind one of Alex watching thuggish films with pleasure in A Clockwork Orange) . Even though there is apparently a semblance of “democracy” now in Indonesia, the paramilitary rallies we see in the picture show how strong-arm fascism, hijacking and twisting the word “freedom” along with it, is running the show. “It’s not about ‘fear,’” we’re told about this “happy” and “accurate” depiction of mass murder staged by the murderers. “It’s about image.” Everything is about sight, of open secrets that are transparent though ignored out of convenience. Adi proclaims his lack of remorse while also being skeptical about the film project because, he says, “I believe God has his secrets.” Adi says, “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse.” We see him sitting with his family in a shopping mall, looking dispassionately near fancy perfume counters, escalators, and flat screen televisions as his voice-over describes the sadistic things he did many years ago. His family members take selfie pictures with a smartphone.
"It's not about fear. It's about image." An unrepentant mass murderer with his selfie-ready family at a shopping mall in "The Act of Killing."
It’s a powerful moment, and Adi’s chosen lack of conscientiousness parallels ours, as a Western audience far away from the sweat shops of the distant East. The “open secret” of genocide runs alongside the suffering enabling our access to ingenious tools of mass communication and entertainment, to easily create and reconfigure our self-images (like Adi’s family) while the laborers creating those tools could never dream of possessing them. Without an image, they have no voice and are as easily forgotten by us as Adi’s victims (including a girlfriend’s father) were by him. At times while listening to him, I couldn’t help but think of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), the eye doctor and philandering murderer who chooses to look the other way from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. “People carry awful deeds around with them,” Judah says. “This is reality. In reality we rationalize. We deny or we couldn’t go on living…I’m talking about reality. If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.” Adi denies nothing, but he is able to carry his awful deeds around without any problem, nihilistically embracing Identity as a vacuum with his practical sensibility. He’s probably the most intelligent and philosophically sophisticated character we see in The Act of Killing, even if that philosophy endorses something shallow. It might be representative of our philosophy more than we care to acknowledge.
By design or by accident, Oppenheimer’s exploration of these killers has an archetypal quality. The film opens with the dark reflective water of an ancient lake, and we’ll see Anwar’s soul searching accompanied by images of him fishing. The film’s most notorious image is of a giant goldfish, out of which dance women smiling and beaming joy for the camera. It’s a startling and surreal picture out of a dream, running counter to the manufactured fish decoration that sings Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” seen later. In contrast to the “Relax and Rolex” free-man gangster-life celebration of apathy and willful Don’t Worry Be Happy blindness, Anwar’s guilt stems from a pair of open eyes. He tells us about a man he decapitated, the corpse’s eyes catching him offguard. “Why didn’t I close his eyes?” he asks. “That is the source of my nightmares. I’m always gazed at by those eyes that I didn’t close.”
But limiting to that one set of eyes is a cop-out. It's an ocean of dead with which he struggles. He’s now surrounded by the dark, looking on, detached and guilty, on replayed sins. Anwar is reflecting against the indifferent landscape at Lake Toba, his dreamlike dance macabre–much like the conclusion of Fellini’s 8 1/2–playing out next to that rusting giant goldfish. A cataclysmic volcano erupted here 75,000 years ago which, according to some scientists, killed all but one group of our ancestors. Some fishing line in his hands, Congo ponders karma, “the law of nature, straight from God.” Distant lightning strikes behind him as he speaks and turns on a flashlight into the dark water of the lake. Oppenheimer cuts to a full moon, a symbol of clarity and reflection, an emblem of a light revealing something that’s not real (what we see of the moon is only the sun’s light reflecting on it). “Imagine in all this darkness,” he says, “it’s like we’re living at the end of the world. We look around. There’s only darkness. It’s so very terrifying.”
Anwar Congo, blindfolded, plays one of his victims.
Like Claudius in Hamlet, Congo’s awakening has paradoxically thrown him in an omnipresent darkness, the insatiable void of black time that laps up the transitory trifles of politics and quick fixes. Claudius was driven to his private quarters after seeing how the art of Hamlet’s play reflected his act of fratricide. His new crown has given him legitimacy: “In the corrupted currents of this world / Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, / And oft tis seen the wicked prize itself / Buys out the law,” he says. But then he realizes, “[But] ’tis not so above, / There is no shuffling, there the action lies / In his true nature…” (Hamlet, III.3) Oppenheimer’s setting at Toba is fitting, as the beginning and end of human civilization becomes the film set of Anwar Congo’s fantasies and fears.
The dynamism of Oppenheimer’s innovative approach to documentary filmmaking makes Anwar one of the most ecstatic characters in any film, fiction or real. The Act of Killing is certainly an admirable document of humanism and activism, but its descent with Anwar into the bottomless well of the past only leaves us more uncertain, if even more resolute to get at the core of a person or incident. It’s a beguiling and monumental journey into the nature of identity. Film as Collective Memory was recently invoked by Martin Scorsese’s lecture “The Persisting Vision.” Scorsese is the architect of several gangster sagas that feel eerily similar to Anwar’s journey (especially when we consider Scorsese’s Catholic relationship to guilt and penance, paying for sins “my way” beyond the bullshit of words, if we recall the opening minutes of Mean Streets), and his fraternal mob movies meditate on a violent culture’s history (the motifs of violence and good food go hand-in-hand in the Inferno of Goodfellas, for instance). Scorsese brings up Thomas Mann’s opening to Joseph and His Brothers, “The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.” Anwar’s dreams by Lake Toba feel like pure cinema, and are the culmination of his story even though it leaves us wondering “What the fuck?” in the web of an indiscernible mystery of human nature. In his lecture, Scorsese is wondering about the beginnings of humanity running alongside the origins of cinema, bringing up the Chauvet caves from 30,000 years ago, the subject of one of The Act of Killing‘s most vocal champions Werner Herzog with his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
"I imitated Hollywood movie stars." A photograph of the young Anwar as executioner and "gangster."
Herzog was framing the drawn images of primitive human beings, wondering how these ancient artisans were transmuting action into representation. Unfathomable, we’re still brought closer to distantly removed ancestors living in contexts alien to our own. Oppenheimer’s film, with its archetypal quality and Ring of Fire setting of searching eyes amidst shadow, is descending into the dreams of humanity’s worst capabilities, and becoming intimate with figures we’d gladly relegate to a dustbin of handily labeled antagonism. In this soul-and-species searching odyssey of sight and sound and history and memory, we become aware that cinema is probably the only art that could make us feel this way. The perplexing emotions and numbing truths of The Act of Killing would be ill-served by a book or play or photograph, where it would be too abstracted and detached from our senses. Seeing and hearing these people, the actual role-players of an ugly history, perform for a camera and become immersed in their dreams–or, like Adi, openly discussing why they’d rather not immerse in them–could only work with the intimacy of filmmaking and filmgoing. It’s problematic because of the resistance to identifying with these people. And though you’d think that totalitarian government figures would work to ban and burn films, note how the official we see feels “awful” while watching the recreation of a village being burned, with crying children whose trauma feels too visceral to be performed. “It’s dangerous for our organization’s image,” he says, though later amending himself, “Don’t erase it! Use it to show how ferocious we can be! In fact, we can be worse.”
It’s the most perverse and unexpected side of film preservation. Such propaganda has kept descendants of the genocide victims living in fear since 1965, preventing them from forming unions. It reminded me of a moment from Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, where the filmmaker shows us Nazis filming Jews being boarded onto trains that will take them to a final destination. Whether it’s the (however we label them) heroes or villains that are documenting cruelty, it’s still important that it be preserved so that we can see, accurately, who we were and what we did, comparing past contexts to present ones, however much the camera affected the historical performers encaged in the frame. This was an important–and often overlooked–theme of Spielberg’s Lincoln, where Spielberg and Tony Kushner have special emphasis given to Alexander Gardner’s photographs of slaves. The president, mindful of how history is always wavering through an ongoing dialectic, says, “Be careful with them.” We’re also meant to note how particular relationships in the film mirror now derided representations in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first filmic depiction of Lincoln from nearly a century before.
Images might be born from cruelty, but upon reflection in the darkness, the light projected is, quite possibly, an awakening, where, so much more important than textbook documentation, the maelstrom of an inner life’s ecstasies unfold. The Act of Killing magnificently traces the cautious boundary of that window between spectating seeker and projected imagination. We can’t ever know Anwar Congo, and no matter what he does he can never atone for what he’s done or know with certainty that he is sorry. But the past won’t release him and he keeps on looking. Like the aging Michael Corleone, who prayed but still wouldn’t repent, his mind suffers and his body cries out. Looking over a ghostly destination, he bends over with unnatural sounds of regurgitation, but only spit comes out. The past won’t release him, and I fear his bad conscience won’t either. This is a film about how the division of past and present is illusory. So it is with film goer and film, where what we’re seeing isn’t separate but so often a component of our identity, controlling conscience when we delude ourselves into thinking we’re born free.