Well, I haven’t started on a binge of horror reviews yet (I want to make sure I won’t shoot myself in the head like I did last year), but I do think maybe Joshua Oppenheimer’s duo of documentaries set in Indonesia and focused on a particular point in history do have horrifying enough content to maybe put this review in the spirit.
Actually, in retrospect, I kind of disgust myself for thinking that way. The lives of others are not a game to exploit and The Act of Killing, released in 2012, and especially The Look of Silence, released last year (though Miami didn’t receive it until its US release this summer), are anything but frivolous with the severity of their subjects.
A bit of background information: In the mid-60s, a failed coup in Indonesia to overthrow Sukarno led to a lot of aggression towards Communists in the country and, under the new leader Suharto, a mass purge of “communists” ensued between 1965 and 1966, many of them at the hands of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth. Except in this case, you didn’t have to do much to prove yourself to be a communist to earn a blade to the neck and as one could guess of any mass killing, whether solicited or not by a government, the killings were perpetrated inhumanely and indiscriminately.
The Pancasila Youth today are generally regarded as heroes of their nation’s history.
In a way, summing the events up in such a loaded manner is kind of unfair, largely because it is essential that you walk into The Act of Killing on your own accord as ignorant of these events as I am and hear how the main people involved in the killings – Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, Herman Koto, and a couple of others – recount their actions with reverence. Oppenheimer doesn’t interview them with any leading questions nor does the camera really have any position on them.
In any case, Oppenheimer does something that completely transforms the project once it begins taking place – he allows them to have the camera favor them. These guys were movie ticket scalpers before they were recruited by the Suharto regime, constantly fawning over American genre pictures… especially gangster films, like twisted characters out of a Godard picture. They had a fascination with movies for a long while. And Oppenheimer decides to let Congo et al. become their own movie stars for a while – to stage and re-create their actions in any style they wish and present themselves the way they want to be seen.
I’d like to say it’s up to the viewer to be the lens to what the Pancasila had done, but you don’t really have a choice to be horrified when this project begins to mold the movie into more than just a summary of the communist purge in Indonesia, it becomes a look into what movies are to different people and how, just as it can influences others in great ways, it can bring out the worst in people. Without imposing any ethics on its proud subjects, The Act of Killing allows itself to act as a cinematic frame to both the ghastly (and surprisingly vivid) psychology of Congo and his circle and to trace all of these awful deeds back to what exuberance they had with film in general. Characters talk about their favorite actors, dress up and fashion themselves as gangsters, all in some ghoulishly warped image of big classic films in many cases. In the 1992 serial killer film, Man Bites Dog, shot in a pseudo-documentary fashion, the lead actor severely beats a man into a pulp in his bathroom and then stops himself to ask what movie it reminds his interviewers of. The Act of Killing isn’t fiction, like Man Bites Dog is. It’s for real and it’s troubling to see these guys walk away from having talked about their mass slaughter by comparing their crimes to an action movie. One of the most stand-out moments of how perspective shifts change everything is when Zulkadry explains that the only reason anybody watches films about Nazis and the Holocaust is to get a surge of power by witnessing the Third Reich, others talk casually about gang-raping a 14-year-old girl.
It’s a movie that has kaleidoscopic style within it to try to keep me dazed (its ending moment behind the credits is a hypnotic ballet), but all the statements in the film are so off-putting and draining that even by the end of the film, when the sort of arc it’s been setting for a while for Anwar comes full circle, it’s not satisfying to see it. Certainly not for Anwar or the viewer. It’s a powerful film in ways that could easily repel anyone and that’s kind of what happens when you allow the camera to freely dig inside the mind of a killer the way that The Act of Killing does.
So, upon hearing of a sequel having been made and released in the 2014 Venice Film Festival, I knew two things – that I was not looking forward to seeing it and that it would be absolutely essential as a viewing. But of course, once I got to catching The Look of Silence, I didn’t find it making me as sick to my stomach as The Act of Killing obviously did. I still needed to brace myself emotionally though.
You see, there’s quite a reason I had to review the two movies together – The Look of Silence is not really its own item, it’s impossible to approach singularly unless you’ve never seen The Act of Killing and at that point half of it might not make sense to you (it’s like watching any of the many tangential films made out of leftover footage shot for Shoah, without seeing Shoah). But at the same time, Silence actually tries to do something far more different than what The Act of Killing intends.
After Killing‘s focus on the butcher, Silence has a focus around one of the victims of the massacres. Adi, our subject (not the same man named Adi in The Act of Killing), was not born yet when his brother became one more victim of the Pancasila stripped of his life and lives in a society that refuses to take accountability for the actions of a government that caused a tragedy to his family. At the same time, he and his mother have moved well on and try to live their lives holding their pain in silence. Adi works as an eye doctor, while his mother takes care of her invalid husband. But constantly they hear talk about their deceased brother and denials about the killings that took him.
Oppenheimer makes a very sensitive and potentially unethical decision to show Adi video footage shot for The Act of Killing to react to and arranges for Adi to confront and interrogate the perpetrators. By this point, there’s no vanishing act for Oppenheimer and company, though, the men asked about their deeds are in on the game and keep a steady antagonism towards Adi and Oppenheimer.
In some cases, men vehemently deny Adi’s questions and angrily demand that they excuse themselves. One of these is in a special case of an uncle to Adi, who claims a complete lack of culpability as he only arranged for his nephew’s execution, not an active hand in the physical murder, upsetting his very sister for his ignorant lack of remorse for her son’s death. Others attempt to go ahead and justify their actions in any manner possible. As a former Muslim, it was particularly upsetting to me to see a man claim that he was allowed to murder his victims because they didn’t pray or another man saying that allowed him to cut a woman more than once (after he claims to have a logic to his violence by saying that you only cut into a person once or… bad things…).
And then there’s some really grisly skeletons that weren’t in the closet of these men, so much as just hanging in plain view. Alongside the number of cuts allowed, a man discusses calmly how he drank blood in order to prevent his insanity without any sense of what he’s saying is shocking while his daughter sits next to him with her mind flushing at this lax confession, her face reading all the different ways she can try to live with knowing this about the man who raised her.
And yet through all this, there’s something even more shocking, though not repellent at all so much as hard to take in as a philosophy – Adi, of all the people on-screen, is the first person to attempt to recognize these men as human and keep him judgments reserved and sympathetic. As he watches Zulkadry’s posture, he points out to Oppenheimer different ways in which Zulkadry’s body betrays his feelings of remorse and guilt. When the daughter above tries to suggest Adi forgive her father, when the family of another perpetrator angrily rejects the crew from their home, Adi always accepts whatever comes his way with serenity – not resignation. Though resignation may be a part of it, given how long Adi has had to live without confronting anybody for never getting to meet his brother. All Adi wants is for someone to tell the truth and explain why it had to be his brother.
It’s striking how quickly Adi is willing to allow himself to recognize that there’s a thin line between men of peace and men who cause violence like this. When it comes between us and them, it’s not a very large line and it demands reflection of us as a species.
At the same time, the fact remains that Adi and Oppenheimer are remarkably patient more than any other people I can think of ever hearing about. And that’s not even speaking about their bravery at having their faces out there or Anwar or Koto, there are a jaw-dropping 49 Anonymous credits (including one co-director) in The Act of Killing and Silence is just as littered by names that refuse to reveal their identities, like a petition against a beast.
Oppenheimer can just return to Denmark and never come back, but Adi and Anwar and Koto and their families are still in Indonesia and in danger when the regime that lead Indonesia to those killings is still around today and the men who held those swords are still revered highly by people. They don’t see their history the way we do and they don’t see much reason to consider what happened wrong. The subjects of these two films could easily just be silenced and erased and forgotten largely outside of the country, just as these killings seem to have been ignored by a world outside of Indonesia.
It’s a thought that drains me.