With The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators give us a rare film that rewards repeated viewings; we have watched it closely several times since its release last year, emerging after each viewing with very different thoughts and insights. The filmmakers’ open spirit of tentative – even stumbling – enquiry is perfectly matched to the complexity and depth of the tunnel, as it winds through Indonesian minefields of genocide, trauma, memory, the rhythms of history and the complicity of cinema in all of the above.
Any attempt to come to grips with the psychology of the perpetrator of war crimes is bound to be morally ambiguous, as we have previously noted in reference to the exceptional work of Gitta Sereny; we only wish she were still around to watch this bravely uncompromising film, as it burrows down into the dark tunnel, in search of tangled mnemonic roots and fungal blooms.
In a recent interview with the LA Times, Oppenheimer speaks about one of the main “characters” in the film (and one of the main perpetrators of the genocide), Anwar Congo:
Again and again, we enter into the convoluted language of guilt, shame and raging self-exoneration, as evidenced in the below testimony from another perpetrator, Herman Koto:
You can cut off all the heads of your victims, yet their eyes remain open. As Anwar Congo reconstructs the scene, which will later be re-enacted:
Oppenheimer again, on the complicity of American Cowboy & Indian movies, in the shaping of a genocidal imagination:
When asked about the most promising response to the film in Indonesia, Oppenheimer says:
Can such spaces of reconciliation be sustained, or will they eventually become yet another layer of oblivion and impunity? Only time inside the tunnel will tell.
For historical context and background, we found a recent essay by Benedict Anderson useful, as we continue to think about this extraordinary film. Be sure to view the director’s cut; the theatrical release attempts to tidy up the messy reality, where meaning resides in densely ambiguous moments that refuse to be neatly story-boarded.