“THE ACT OF KILLING” (2012): The unbearable banality of evil

Poster of the film.

This excellent, hard documentary has a double novelty: in the thematic aspect, refers to a episode scarcely known, that of the massive killings perpetrated in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966, around one million of murders in one of the most violent 20th century genocides; in the formal aspect, is an experimental film that reinvents and modifies the conception of documentary with an approach never tried before, as few other films have done, being one of the most original and innovative ever (with The Thin Blue Line, by Errol Morris, Land Without Bread, by Luis Buñuel, and a happy few more).

“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… unprecedented in the history of cinema”. – Werner Herzog.

Historical background

As for the facts, Indonesia – a huge archipelago that is the fourth most populated country in the world and has big stores of coveted natural resources – suffered half a century ago, in the context of the Corld War between American capitalism and Soviet communism, a devastating wave of political killings. The neurotic fight between both blocs had reached its crisis, and in the island chain the great momentum of the Communist Party (PKI), the main Indonesian political group and the second communist organization in the world after the Chinese one, troubled in the United States, whose leaders, nonetheless, didn’t want to engage directly in a war nor send troops, because they already had a big mess in Vietnam, where dozens of thousands of poor Americans had already died (and even more Vietnamese). Hence, in 1965 the United States and other Western powers supported general Suharto, chief of the Indonesian Army, when he overthrew the nationalistic and anti-imperialist (but not socialist) president Sukarno and established a terror realm. They expected Suharto would do for him the dirty job of eradicating communism in the islands and at the same time would save them the problem of staining their hands with blood. It wasn’t, of course, that American leaders wanted to protect their poor (and largely black) citizens from another war of guerrillas like that of Vietnam: they couldn’t care less about outcasts’ lifes; but the growing pressure of American people against Vietnam war made it impossible to open a new front in South-east Asia. Suharto emerged as their man in Indonesia, and launched an exhaustive purge of PKI leaders and members. The persecution of real and supposed communists lasted throughout the whole bloody era of Suharto (until 1998), but reached its violent climax al the beginning, in 1965-1966, with mass exterminations, punitive marches in the different islands and concentration camps. The United States, the United Kingdom and the West in general gave their support to that exterminating regime, which in its turn, opened the door to big American, British and European companies to steal freely the natural resources of the archipelago (oil, gold, diamants, copper…). Even today, Indonesia gives to the West a huge workforce so cheap and mistreated that it is slavery.

All this is ignored in Europe and the United States. People reasonably informed are aware of what happened in Vietnam, maybe in Cambodia, but apart from the readers of some outsider journalists (Mark Curtis, John Pilger…) and academic historians (John Roosa), people know almost nothing. Unlike other countries –Rwanda, South-Africa, Germany–, in Indonesia there wasn’t any Comission of Truth and Reconciliation, nor trials, nor victims memorials. In fact, the killers remain in power, and lead a life of luxury with absolute impunity.

The documentary

The Act of Killing recovers the memories of massive assassinations from the mid-sixties. But it doesn’t do so as a television news report, giving background information and abstract facts, but from inside. The directors wanted to show inner horror, but not from the victims’ interior, since they are not here any more to speak, nor witnesses’ interior, nor relatives’ or friends’, but from the butcher’s interior. They found some of the killers from half a century ago, now elderly, and they suggested them to speak about their crimes, even to enact their methods in front of the cameras. To their surprise, executioners willingly agreed to stage their atrocities. It turns out that individuals who killed thousands of people with their own hands, face to face, not only have no remorse nor regret, but they are proud of themselves and of their deeds. That requires some explanation, of course.

The Act of Killing demands another way of looking at reality. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to re-enact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film”. – Errol Morris.

First of all, one has to posit oneself in the field of amorality: the elderly killers are beings absolutely devoid of any notion of good and evil. Their vital space is premoral, prior to any axiological principle. This situation is very relevant since it proves that ethics is a conscious, deliberate construction, not a natural quality of human being: one isn’t born moral. The Killers from North Sumatra were and are individuals lacking in moral conscience who have only one aesthetic referent: American gangster pictures. When the Suharto regime began to kill communists and suspects of communism, these sadics had the chance to emulate their big screen heroes’ brutality. They wildly attacked their victims to death imitating scenes from those gangster films they had seen many times in the cinema.

The main innovation of The Act of Killing lies in making the killers enact their own crimes and, from this re-enactment of butchers’ memory, lay bare evil in its essence.

The directors of The Act of Killing, in perceiving the moral vacuum of those subjects and their passion for violent b-movies, conceived an strategy to enter the killers’ mind and see horror without filters. They proposed them to make a film to show their methods, the way they killed helpless people. A large part of the 2 hours and 40 minutes of director’s cut film consists of the shooting of a violent picture by the Indonesian death squads members. So, there is a film inside a film, as in the structure of Don Quixot, which contains many novels inside one novel, or in Hamlet, where a tragedy is staged inside a tragedy. These multilevelled  works are called in French mise en abyme. They are like a game of mirrors, structures inside structures, like Russian dolls. The main innovation of The Act of Killing lies in making the killers enact their own crimes and, from this re-enactment of butchers’ memory, lay bare evil in its essence. It’s a revolutionary approach that renders extraordinary results for knowledge.

act killing 2
One veteran killer shows how he murdered people strangling them with a cable.
  • act killing 5
    Re-enactment of a collective murder in the film the assassins shoot inside The Act of Killing.
act killing 3
Staging of a real slaughter in an Indonesian hamlet.

The veteran assassins are the scriptwriters, directors, and actors of their film. The directors of The Act of Killing allow them to conceive their own plot and “artistic” decisions, without any imposition or orientation: they can be free artists of themselves. They make up the scenes, prepare their representation, costumes, settings, special effects. They show proudly how they forced people to climb to the rooftop terrace of a building and choked them with cables, how they attacked a village and burned its homes and killed its inhabitants, the beatings in the interrogations. They boast of having raped girls.

Among the “documentary” re-enactments they insert fiction fragments, in which they show things as terrible as the true ones. The film effects are sickening, and even more when one remembers that the atrocities happened in reality. At the same time, images have the interest of making evil explicit, in its essence, in action. What we have read in history books about slaughters and exterminations, so often reduced to an abstraction, becomes realistic enactment, performance. We see the killers doing what they themselves did. It isn’t abstract any more.

  • act killing 8
    In the middle of the atrocities they re-enact, killers insert strange images in which some dancers and themselves are entering a huge metal fish. The meaning of this scene, if any, is for the viewer to find out, or at least imagine.

They are happy to be able to become famous through their film. They wish to make a good picture, to make an impression. They watch different takes and comment critically the results, they anticipate the effect this images can have on viewers. They ponder the proportions of humor, adventure, and violence. They take pleasure in sadism. It’s absolute moral vacuum, perfect amorality.

act killing 6
Butchers watching his own film and commenting on the effect it can have on spectators.

The only two times real directors ask them if they regret having brought about so evil, they defend themselves denouncing the communist violence. They show a film shot by the Suharto regime about their supposed brutalities, staged by actors. One of them mentions as well the many crimes commited with impunity by the United States, like Bush’s and Obama’s Guantánamo. Only one of the butchers does admit having been haunted by his victims in nightmares, being unable to rid of his memories. His colleagues recommend him not to linger on it, tell him he did the right thing, what was ordered. To reach a cathartic effect and banish spirits, in an oneiric scene of the film inside the film the besieged elder is accosted by a phantom.

The Act of Killing reveals that violence is a culture in Sumatra. Killers boast about their crimes and are admired. They appear in an Indonesian public TV show talking quietly about the tortures, and are congratulated and thanked by the host. One of the assassins says people should remember always history, the past. This is the most impressive sentence of the whole film. Usually, calls to remember history are meant to prevent the repetition of atrocities, but in this case is a warning, a threat: everybody must avoid annoying people in power, otherwise consequences may be very unpleasant. The threat has the force of the State and its executioners. Political parties are paramilitary. The main one is called Party of Entrepreneurs and Workers, a name that gives an idea of the democratic level of Indonesia.

act killing 6
Assassins driving and sightseeing in Sumatra.

The effect of the film –even in successive viewings– is devastating. But even more than the enacted brutalities -peelings of skin, punches, strangulations with cables, blood puddles- what is more startling is the cold moral insensitivity of the killers when remembering their actions. Not only the impunity they enjoy in Indonesia, where they have a very good life, but the absolute lack of any remorse or regret. They didn’t only obeyed orders, like nazi officers said in their trials (in what philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil”), but they enjoyed themselves emulating the gangsters’ sadism. They would just do it again if they could.

There are some good documentaries dealing with the subjet of torture. One, even, S.O.P.: Standard Operation Procedure, by Errol Morris (2008), interviews the American perpetrators of the assaults in Abu Ghraib (Iraq) to try to enter the mind, if not the conscience, of torturers. But The Act of Killing represents another turn of the screw in making the killers act as themselves in a dimension of memory, fantasy, pride and amorality. It is a landmark not only in cinema, but in philosophical thought. 


Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christinne Cynn and Anonimous
Country: Norway, Denmark, United Kingdom
Original language: Indonesian
Locations: North Sumatra
Running time: 122 min (theatrical release), 159 min (director’s cut)
Web and trailer: http://theactofkilling.com/

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