I’ve only just caught up with this…. Joshua Oppenheimer‘s surreal-documentary film The act of killing (2012). It’s so surreal I need to let the synopsis speak for itself:
‘The unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are challenged to re-enact some of their many murders in the style of the American movies they love.’
It’s a deeply serious work; Oppenheimer has worked for years with militias, death squads and their victims to explore the relationship between political violence and the public imagination, and his co-director, Christine Cynn, is a founding member of the Vision Machine Film Project in London and has worked on the AHRC Genocide and Genre project. Oppenheimer has also co-edited Killer images: documentary, memory and the performance of violence (2013).
Here’s a more prosaic version of the synopsis from the University of Westminster, where Oppenheimer is based in the International Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film:
Made as a Danish/Norwegian/British co-production, The Act of Killing is a highly controversial account of the year following the 1965 Indonesian military coup in which pro-regime paramilitaries killed more than a million alleged Communists. These murders went unpunished and the perpetrators are still powerful, influential people who can rely on the support of corrupt politicians.
In the film, these men proudly recall their struggle against the Communists and demonstrate their efficient methods of slaughter. Slim Anwar Congo and portly Herman Koto are delighted when the film’s directors ask them to re-enact these murders for their documentary. They zealously set about finding actors, designing elaborate costumes and discussing possible scenarios. They see themselves as film stars who will show the world Indonesia’s truepremen or ‘free men’. But eventually the film project gets these men to talk about and reflect upon their actions as they have never done before. Congo says that for the first time he felt what his victims must have felt. It begins to dawn on him exactly what he did to hundreds of people. The reconstruction of reality has become more real for these men than their actions originally were.
Errol Morris (an executive producer for the film with Werner Herzog) has this to say about it:
“An extraordinary portrayal of genocide. To the inevitable question: what were they thinking, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an answer. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film.”
You can watch the trailer here, and read interviews with Oppenheimer about the research for and the making of the film here, here and here. The historical and geographical context for the film is summarised here (scroll down).
According to the Jakarta Post, many survivors have praised the film but others have criticised Oppenheimer for marginalising the role of the military in the massacres. The same production team is now developing a follow-up, The Look of Silence, which reportedly will deal with ‘the other side of the story’, how survivors and victims’ families co-exist with the perpetrators.
A host of questions here, not least about aesthetics and violence and about the incorporation of art-work into the research process, but also about the question that inevitably haunted me during my visit to Auschwitz, and that returns again and again as I work on my bombing project: how could people do such things? A question that finally returns us to my title and to J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Julius, in case you’re wondering: not Joshua.