Ironically, Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, is truly about the act of living. After attending the screening at the Michigan Theater, I was left pondering the delusions we must live in to allow our mental states to survive—the narratives we must tell ourselves in order to ignore the insanity of the violence around us. The Act of Killing, in which the murderous paramilitary gangsters of Indonesia reenact the executions they performed on the accused communists of their country, seems like it may simply be a gruesome how-to for performing horrid deeds. At its core, however, it is a reflection of the ways we justify, glamorize, ignore, or fabricate the violence we directly perform or in which we are implicated.
The most interesting aspect of the documentary was its fresh and totally unexpected style. The film opens with a surreal scene of people in fantastic costumes in a serene landscape attempting to appear as though they are in paradise while it is obvious that their surroundings are cold to the point of pain. After this scene, another scene occurs in which subtitles state the number of deaths caused by the purge of suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965. It then describes the gangsters who carried out the murders. In this situation, normal Americans would suppose the documentary would interview people who knew the victims or speak to human rights organization within the country. An expository method of documentary making would unfurl and we could come to understand how, why, and where injustices took place and who was implicated and to what extend. The events would be factually presented, and we would be left with a strong understanding of the wrongdoings and that we could never allow such atrocities to happen again.
The director, however, was daring enough to not take this approach. If he were to end with a message stating, “look at this injustice—we must never let it happen again!” we would surely, in the moment, agree, but the message would not last. These things do happen again, and again, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. No matter how many documentaries one watches, it doesn’t seem to give them the agency to standup against violence when it actually occurs. How do these things keep occurring? They continue to occur because the citizens of the world doctor their surrounds in order to cope with what is happening. They separate their world from violent realities and ignorance becomes their bliss.
It makes perfect sense, then, for Oppenheimer to take the approach he chooses for the documentary. He interviews the gangsters themselves, and asks them to reenact their murders however they like. The gangsters are receptive, proud even. Their hatred for the communists is clear by how they smile as they talk about the way they exterminated them. Reenactments of the murders are at first simple: “we wrapped the wire around the communists throat like this…to avoid blood spill and prevent smell.” Soon, the reenactments become surreal. The reenactments then become reminiscent of their favorite American movies with them as the smooth stars. It escalates and strange costumes, bizarre physical humor, and reenactments of guilt-ridden dreams fill the silver screen. Finally, the absurd fictitiousness of the reenactments can no longer be sustained and the reality of the lies begins to sink in with the head gangster. He feels guilt for what he has done and it brings him to tears. By the end of the film, we see him realizing the damage he did to real human beings, but his arch does not bring him to everlasting change but simply a moment of guilt, and then a return to delusion.
Demonstrating the fictitiousness of reenactment and its subjectivity was a highly reflexive mode of documentary making that left the audience pondering the legitimacy of finding truth in this documentary or truth in documentary at all. While telling stories, how does one manipulate the truth to serve the purpose they hold for it? We ask ourselves this question, but then must ask the legitimacy of all of our memories. How can we trust a mental reproduction of a moment when our brains work so hard to manipulate memories for our own sanity? How active are we in our own “factual” narrative making?
In the talk back, I felt the audiences dealing with this very question. They asked how this could be a real representation of the gangsters? How could they be comfortable with making themselves looks so horrible to a worldwide audience? The director surely had to doctor their performance to serve his purpose. The audience wanted facts in order to provide certainty. But the ambiguity of “truth” in a creation remained present, haunting the theater. As commentators stated the people involved were pleased with the film and no harm came to them, audience members still couldn’t believe it. They continued to tell themselves: no, that cant be real, it must have happened differently—I can’t believe this…I won’t believe this. So, then, they constructed for themselves what they could believe.