What Act of Killing tells us about our powers of self-denial
Imagine if the Nazi regime was still in power - perhaps with the leadership changed, perhaps slightly less murderous and more pragmatic - but with no reconciliation or recognition of former crimes. Imagine if the Holocaust was celebrated, with aging veterans of Auschwitz wheeled out for public adulation, to show their medals and tell stories of the killings.
That is the Indonesia that Joshua Oppenheimer shows in the remarkable documentary, Act of Killing, which will hopefully win the Oscar for Best Documentary this March.
In 1965, the Indonesian army and various paramilitary organizations reacted to a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party by embarking on a massacre of suspected communists. It’s estimated that, in under two years, between 500,000 and 2 million Indonesian and Chinese suspected communists were murdered.
The massacre and reign of terror helped bring President Suharto and his New Order to power. And while Suharto may have died, that regime is still in power in Indonesia. There has never been any attempt to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice, or to achieve ‘reconciliation’ with the families of the deceased.
Oppenheimer lived in Indonesia, where he was working on a documentary about some workers’ struggles to put together a union. Many of them had lost relatives in the 1965 killings, and they would point out people in their villages who had taken part in the massacre. Oppenheimer went to interview the murderers, and discovered that they were only too happy to talk about the murders, and even to act them out. They were proud of them.
Eventually, his research brought him to an elderly and dapper gentleman called Anwar Congo, who was a gangster in the 1960s in North Sumatra, and who took part in the murders of perhaps 1000 suspected communists, in partnership with a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth.
Anwar was more than happy to talk to Oppenheimer about the murders. Early on in the film, he showed him a rooftop in Medan (a town in North Sumatra) where he and his mates carried out many murders. He shows how they wrapped chicken-wire around their victims' throats and pulled, for a quick and easy kill, then dumped the bodies in a river. Then, he tells Josh, he would go out, take drugs and dance. He even performs a little cha-cha-cha for the camera there on the rooftop. ‘This is a happy man’, says a friend of his.
Anwar is feted for his heroic part in the genocide by the Pancasila Youth, which still has around three million members today. He’s invited on their TV show to talk about it, and congratulated for developing such efficient methods of killing. And yet, at night, he is haunted by nightmares, and as the documentary goes on, he begins to wonder if what he did was wrong.
The state as organized violence
Act of Killing is one of the most interesting and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Two things particularly struck me when I watched it.
Firstly, it’s a brilliant picture of a modern gangster-state, of which there are many around the world (I lived in one, Russia, for several years - it's also failed to address the mass genocides of Stalin). You get a picture of the hierarchy of thuggery, from street gangsters like Anwar, to paramilitary organizations like Pancasila Youth, run by a horrific little goon called Yapto Soerjosoemarno, to the businessmen who profit from their connections to the thugs, all the way up to the biggest thugs of all, the government.
The gangsters’ narcissism is so overwhelming, they have no idea quite how awful they appear. They display a casual sexism, for example, treating the women who run around them as sex objects, and one Pancasila elder even boasting of having raped 14-year-old ‘communist’ girls. ‘I would tell them: this will be hell for you, but heaven for me’, he cackles. In one scene, Yapto Soerjosoemarno visits a museum full of stuffed animals, including a display of a lion pouncing on a terrified gazelle. ‘Imagine that is a man and a woman’, he leers.
The gangsters take pride in their violence, their status as ‘big men’, their ability to extort money from little people. They take pride in being a gangster, which they insist comes from the English for ‘free man’. Words, and morals, seem to have slipped from their moorings. There is no longer any moral law, except the strong do what they want. ‘I feel like we’re at the end of the world’, says Anwar at one point, looking out on a black night lit up by lightning.
One former murderer, Adil, has a particularly Nietzschean view of things. He says he has no shame or qualms or regret about the 1000-or-so people he killed. We see him going round a shopping mall with his wife and daughter, looking slightly bored. Josh asks him if he is worried he might one day be tried for his crimes. Perhaps, he replies, the Geneva conventions won’t last anyway, perhaps they will be replaced by the Jakarta conventions.
I sometimes felt a revulsion at the moral climate of Indonesia, and wondered (no doubt xenophobically) what an Asia-dominated world will look like. But the fact is, the West conspired to bring Suharto to power, turned a blind eye to the massacres, profited from his regime, and still profits from it. We depend on gangster-states like Indonesia for cheap goods.
Art as a mirror
The second thing that struck me about Act of Killing is what it says about the imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves.
Oppenheimer says the film is a new kind of documentary, which he calls a ‘documentary of the imagination’. It strives not for historical accuracy, but instead lets the participants act out their impression of events however they want. This, after all, is how our memories work through impressions and narratives and vivid scenes, the recreation of which is its own kind of reality.
And the ‘heroes’ of Act of Killing are well versed in the language of cinema - they were known, in the 1960s, as ‘cinema gangsters’, because they’d hang out outside cinemas selling black-market tickets, and modeled themselves on American stars. Anwar recounts how he’d come out of an Elvis movie feeling happy, and then happily go about his bloody work. They recreate moments from the massacres in various movie genres - there are cowboy sequences, film noir scenes, war movie scenes and even musical numbers. One of the gangsters, fat Herman, dresses up in drag (it's normal in Indonesian theatre apparently), lending the scenes a particularly surreal quality.
The film gets across how we tell ourselves stories to aggrandize ourselves and deny our ‘shadow-side’. We are highly selective in where we point the camera and how we edit reality. And we’re always the heroes of our movies. The film even celebrates the exuberance and - dare I say it - surreal beauty of Anwar’s imagination. There’s one particularly batshit crazy scene, on a waterfall, where dancing girls sing ‘Born Free’, and two actors playing victims of the genocide present Anwar with a medal for his services to the state and for sending them to heaven. Is the film, then, simply offering a mass-murderer the chance to aggrandize themselves and increase their legend? 'I never thought this would look so stupendous, Josh', Anwar tells the director while watching the rushes.
Yet the film also shows how we’re not entirely in control of our imagination. The shadow returns, into our dreams, into our narratives. Banquo's ghost appears at the feast.
Fellini explores this idea in 8 1/2, which is also about our imagination and its powers of self-denial. In one scene, the hero is being confronted for being a philander by his miserable wife. ‘How can you live with yourself?’ she asks. He smiles, and slips into a reverie, in which he imagines all his girlfriends living together in a harem, welcoming him home and pampering him. He lives with himself because he can weave a version of reality where he’s the hero. And yet his dream gets away from him - the girls start to bicker and accuse him, and he has to beat them back with a whip.
In Act of Killing, Anwar is haunted by nightmares, in which his victims return and accuse him. He says he is haunted by their eyes, staring at him. They recreate some of nightmares - hellish scenes where his head is cut off and a demon (played by fat Herman in drag) feeds him his own intestines.
He seems to have a troubled conscience. But his co-murderer, Adil, says he is weak for being thus troubled. ‘Go to a psychiatrist’, he advises. ‘They’re like nerve-doctors. They will give you vitamins for your nerves’. He takes refuge in a materialist amoral view of sin.
The question, then, is the one asked repeatedly by Plato: do we have an inner conscience, a daemon, which haunts our imagination and gives us an intimation of our fate in a moral universe? Or are morals merely conventions set by power, so we can do whatever we want as long as we’re in power?
And what is the role of art in this world-view? In Act of Killing, art initially seems to be a mirror in a narcissistic sense, in which the gangsters preen themselves. Yet when they see their past crimes reenacted, they are often struck not by their heroism but their ugliness and brutality.
In one recreation of a village massacre, a deputy minister comes along to lead the Pancasila Youth in a chant of ‘kill the communists!’ He stops the scene, saying it seems a bit bloodthirsty. But then he insists the scene go in the film, as he doesn’t want to admit their acts were in any way less than heroic. The gangsters’ own children act in the massacre, and one child continues to bawl after the cameras finish rolling. ‘Stop crying’, her father tells her. ‘It’s just a movie.’
We rarely get to see the other side of the story - what it was like to be a victim of these gangsters’ delusions of heroism. Just once, an actor admits that his stepfather was one of the victims, and he had to find and bury his body. He then plays a communist in a scene, being tortured, and the line between reality and art becomes blurred - he breaks down in tears, begs for mercy. The gangsters look on uncomfortably at this intrusion of genuine suffering in their epic.
In one scene, Anwar plays the victim rather than the murderer. He is roughed up, threatened, and the old man (Anwar must be 70 or so) has to stop filming, he is so frightened and disturbed. He tells Josh that, for a second, he knew what it was like to be a victim. ‘It was much worse for them’, Josh says, ‘because they knew they really would be killed’. Anwar thinks. ‘It’s coming back to me’, he says. ‘I really don’t want it to, Josh.’
Perhaps, then, art can be a mirror in a less narcissistic sense, showing us and our societies not just as we would like to be shown (Rambo, Die Hard, all the Bond movies) but as we really are. Or perhaps our powers of self-denial and self-aggrandizement are simply too strong for genuine awareness. How many ‘gritty’ gangster movies merely ended up inspiring more gangsters? Will Act of Killing only further increase the legend of its stars?
Lots of good links this week:
Here is a video from the Stoicism for Everyday Life event from last year:
Here is a New Scientist piece on epileptic seizures and how they apparently trigger religious experiences.
Here is a Radio 4 show by Andrew Brown that argues the Church of England is facing extinction for its failure to adapt to our country's liberalism on issues like homosexuality. I suggested to Brown the Church should reform its attitude to homosexuality, but out of a sense of love rather than simple expediency to polling data (which is unlikely to persuade the faithful). Meanwhile, last Sunday Nicky Gumbel of HTB (one of the growing bits of the CofE) warned that churches can indeed disappear and that the church should become 'famous for love'. But note (12 minutes in) he only refers to homosexuality obliquely as a 'lifestyle choice'. It's not. Who would choose to be gay in a country like Uganda, where it can cost you your life?
Here is a little interview I did with Harper's Bazaar.
This week I read the astronomer Carl Sagan's Gifford lectures on natural theology, called Varieties of Scientific Experience. The best and most persuasive book I've read by an atheist - his death was a big loss to the atheist movement, and to all of us.
The New Yorker writes up a new study from Ed Diener and others, which finds rich secular societies have higher levels of happiness, but poor religious societies have higher levels of meaning.
Daniel Dennett writes an intelligent disagreement with Sam Harris on the question of whether we have any free will.
Alain de Botton has launched a new book on the News, including a new online paper called 'The Philosopher's Mail', trying to use celebrity stories as vehicles for wisdom. Part of his broader campaign to bring more moral paternalism into free market liberal capitalism. Not sure it quite works, this time...
Here's a review of Joanna Moncrieff's new book on the chequered history of anti-psychotics.
This is old but awesome - two people on a canoeing trip happened to see an amazing 'murmuration' of starlings over a lake. I like how one of the girls says 'shit!' at 1.11. Probably what I'd say too.
That's all for this week. If you want to donate to help support the blog, here's the button below.