The Act of Killing is a documentary about some ambling old men who also killed thousands of Communists in their youth. Documentaries about mass killing aren’t new, nor for that matter, is it truly possible to shock with archival footage. Anyone born in the UK likely encounters footage of Auschwitz at some point before their 18th birthday, and as such, become somewhat vaccinated to imagery of mass killing. At a certain point, many documentaries cross the line between the attempt to convey the horror of atrocity, and the attempt to shock the viewer with genocide-porn. Much to its credit, The Act of Killing doesn’t do this. The most cringe-worthy moment of footage were scenes where one of the characters visits the dentist, and where he also attempts some himself, with a pair of pliers. That’s not to say that this film isn’t shocking, but since none of the violence is real, it actively discards the ‘authentic shock’ in favour of a rather more chilling explanatory approach. I can think of few moments that caused my blood to freeze as when the rather friendly Anwar Congo explains how used to take a piece of wire, tie it to a post, and then use it to strangle one of the thousand-odd people that he killed during the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia. Though Anwar isn’t the sole focus of the documentary, he might as well be. The narrative arc of his realisation/reckoning with his actions in his twenties is so perfect that it could almost be scripted. His tears, though somewhat cajoled by a question from the director, appear heartfelt. As a means of challenging those who commit war crimes, getting them to act out their own torture/killing routines with themselves as a victim is rather novel, but it apparently works, at least in Anwar’s case. His body reactions when being strangled with wire are also consistent with him actually being strangled, so it appears that safety took a back seat to realism when it came to filming those scenes.
The main selling point of The Act of Killing is that it is completely at odds with the European experience of such atrocities. Though the killings are passed over in official histories, they aren’t actively suppressed. People are quite comfortable with the idea that almost 50 years ago, about 500,000 to 1,000,000 supposed Communists were slaughtered at the onset of a military dictatorship. The film constantly cites 2,000,000 deaths, but I’m minded to pay attention to scholarship here. The Act of Killing doesn’t draw us into a parallel world, since the equivalents of say, The Man in the High Castle and Fatherland are both still rooted in Anglo-American attitudes of suppression. The point made is that this world is entirely alien to us. Except, well, when we think about how ‘normal’ killing in war tends to be a cause of celebration. I imagine that watching The Act of Killing alongside, say, a documentary on D-Day, or Iwo Jima, would illustrate some uncomfortable parallels regarding the glorification of violence in our own culture. Still, even in the wars which British culture (as a whole) appears comfortable with, it’s hard to imagine a TV presenter crowing about the enemy body count on TV, which is one of the key moments in the documentary.
The problem with the documentary is that it is poorly cut. At an hour and 55 minutes, the theatrical cut is approximately 45 minutes shorter than the director’s cut, and even at this length, it feels flabby. This is totally understandable from a director’s perspective - the material presented is, for the most part, dynamite. However, once the third or fourth high level political figure ambles onto the screen demonstrating their blithe indifference to the mass-murder of communists, it begins to wear on the viewer. Yes, we get it, they don’t happen to agree with us on the point of mass killing and atrocity. The problem with amassing such incredible footage is that at some point, bits and pieces must be left on the cutting room floor (or, left on the hard disk). The Act of Killing doesn’t quite succeed here. Without any attempt to describe the political culture, the succession of high ranking politicians supportive of the mass killings gets a little repetitive. The same can be said of some of the film footage. While for the most part, individual scenes in which the once-killers re-enact their torture routines are presented as single sections, other sequences are presented throughout the film, with little to link or connect it. After the second or third time, this feels like psycho-active filler, intended to break up the perfectly good footage of the people talking about what they did, or their every day life.
Some critics have argued that the film-makers were somewhat unethical when filming The Act of Killing. Certainly, the film presents a clearly critical opinion of the perpetrators (in fairness, a sympathetic portrait would be almost impossible). For the most part, we are left in the dark regarding the grounds on which the film was made, and the relationship between the film makers and their subjects. I think the film poses some wider questions about the role of documentary film making and such subjects. In particular, one of the scenes depicting the recreated burning of a village features the perpetrators preparing by shouting and chanting. In this scene, the senior government figure present clearly understands how this will look, and makes a quite important speech, which on one hand proclaims that this behaviour isn’t how they acted, but should be shown to remind people of how they can be. It is a simple piece of dialogue that both defangs the entire scene for a domestic audience (“This is fiction”) and also turns the film into a warning for a domestic audience (“This is how nasty we can be”). Such a speech presents a dilemma for film makers: the man is clearly conscious of the film’s likely effects, and in making the speech, he turns the film to his own ends. Yet it would be impossible to show this scene without including the speech, because to do so would lead to accusations of twisting the reality of what happened. Personally, I was left with the impression that the film makers had been somewhat outfoxed.
The reason I point to this as an ethical issue is that the acceptance or acknowledgement of the mass killings after 1965 is probably far more important to Indonesians than ourselves. Anything dealing with the issue should probably keep that in mind. Therefore, a government official managing to turn a key scene into a domestic warning should, perhaps, keep us on guard about the film’s role. For the western viewer, we get a trippy vision through scarcely imaginable crimes. But let’s not kid ourselves, the 20th Century is replete with such actions, on a variety of scales. Since individual instances of mass killing are quite numerous, most get lost in the shuffle of history, in favour of grander narratives like ‘the Cold War’, or “when democracies gave fascism a kicking between 1939 and 1945”. Therefore the primary purpose of documentaries on mass killings is usually to inform the general audience that they actually happened and why we should remember them. Given the lack of framing information, what separates The Act of Killing from other such documentaries is the outstanding access to its subjects, and the somewhat psychedelic window into a mash of Indonesian/Hollywood aesthetics. Other than that, there is little provided to situate this film in Indonesia itself, nor is there much attempt at helping the viewer understand the political background to the killings. Suffice to say, the meaning for an Indonesian of Chinese ethnicity is going to be very different. On one level this film works, I’m reminded of the sheer force of Yang Jisheng’s book, Tombstone. Here, the author chose to present the desolation of the Great Chinese Famine without any detailed explanation of the framing ideology or politics, leaving the reader to wonder what the hell these ‘three red banners’ are and why people followed them to the point of killing millions of people. The problem is that Yang Jisheng follows this opening chapter with hundreds of pages of detailed insight into the politics and ideology surrounding the Great Famine. It is the combination of the two which allows the reader to get valuable insight into the events, and some form of critical understanding. In place of chapters two and onwards, The Act of Killing rolls to credits.