Amnesia and acts of killing

pretext_for_mass_murderI’ve discussed Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing – about paramilitary death-squads in Indonesia in 1965-6 – in an earlier post.  Larry Rohter provided a short backgrounder in the New York Times at the end of last week (much more here):

The events initially addressed in “The Act of Killing” are little known in the West: the slaughter of as many as a million people in Indonesia following the military’s seizure of power there in 1965. The victims were labeled Communists but included labor leaders, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, with paramilitary groups carrying out the killings at the behest of the Indonesian Army and with the support of the United States and its allies, who worried that Indonesia, like Vietnam, would fall into Communist hands.

In Indonesia, the killings were “a kind of open secret, kept discreetly hidden so that if you wanted to, you could pretend it wasn’t happening,” said John Roosa, a scholar of Indonesian history at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Pretext for Mass Murder,” the leading book about the 1965 massacres. “So this film has become a provocation, an impetus for Indonesians to go back to the perpetrators and say, ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’ ”

Guernica now has a new interview (by Emma Myers) with Oppenheimer in which he talks at length about the background to the film and the process of filming itself:

‘I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.’

The Act of Killing

He talks in particular about the performative force of storytelling, the ethics of staging the killers’ fantasies (they were paid a small per diem sanctioned by the Arts & Humanities Research Council), and ends with a wonderfully sharp remark from Werner Herzog (one of his co-producers) about the political possibilities of art.

There’s now also an extended essay by another of the film’s co-producers, Errol Morris, over at Slate, in which he asks: ‘Is this a story about Indonesia or also a story about us?’  His answer takes that little clause in Rohter’s commentary – ‘Indonesia, like Vietnam‘ – and unpacks it to devastating effect.  His journey takes him back to his own film, The Fog of War, to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and to the Vietnam War: the coup in Indonesia, he realises, took place in 1965, the same year that President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam.  It’s a brilliant road-trip – a mix of interviews and scholarly research, of geopolitical critique and cultural sensibility.

You can see some clips from the film, and hear Herzog and Morris discuss it in this video from Vice.

Finally, there’s a commentary on the film by Slavoj Zizek at the New Statesman here. His starting-point is a familiar one:

The protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen: as in their real killings and torture, the men experienced their role play as a re-enactment of cinematic models: they experienced reality itself as a fiction. During their massacres, the men, all admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as controllers of the black market in cinema tickets), imitated Hollywood gangsters, cowboys and even a musical dancer.

Here the “big other” enters: what kind of society publicly celebrates a monstrous orgy of torture and killing decades after it took place, not by justifying it as an extraordinary, necessary crime for the public good but as an ordinary, acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is the easy one of putting the blame on either Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.

But he then spirals off into his own (I almost wrote ‘magical mystery’) tour d’horizon that ultimately brings The Act of Killing into the intimacy of our own, deeply personal spaces and their (non-)relation to an increasingly eviscerated and compromised public space.

For all that, I much prefer Morris’s take – and I greatly admire his method.  In the end, he asks a series of questions that are not about celebration or banalisation, important though they are, but about amnesia.