Try imagining what reality television starring war criminals might look like and you will begin to get an idea of the surreal, outrageous, and courageous new documentary The Act of Killing, which won the top prize at this year’s CPH:DOX film festival. Mass murderers are encouraged to describe their past atrocities through dramatic art, by creating their own movie. They set out enthusiastically contriving their version of history, a bizarre and bloody vision that includes the liberal use of special effects make-up, brightly-colored costumes, musical numbers, and cross-dressing. In the process, we learn about the horror unleashed on Indonesia in the mid-1960s, the complicity of Western governments in the civilian massacres that ultimately left 500,000 dead (the U.S. was a key ally in the anti-communist purge), and contemporary life under the ongoing military dictatorship, bloodthirsty youth groups and all.
With Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as executive producers, this film isn’t exactly The Real World: Jakarta but the similarities with the reality television format are nonetheless difficult to ignore. When people who vie for their personal lives to be systematically exposed are given the possibility to do so in front of a mass audience, they tend to become hyperconscious of self-branding; the narcissistic men in this film behave very much in this mode. So while The Act of Killing details crimes against humanity, it also shares a certain something with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “For massacres I usually wore jeans,” says Anwar Congo, a master torturer and the film’s central figure. “For a massacre, pants should be thick.”
The war criminals that Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn collaborate with clearly enjoy revisiting their atrocities (many of the people who worked on the film, including the anonymous third director, are not named in the credits in order to protect their identities from the current regime). The boastful way they detail their cruelty is likely to leave even the most jaded viewers astonished. Their openness also reveals a total lack of concern for any repercussions. “War crimes are defined by the winners,” explains one man. “I am a winner. So I can make my own definition.”
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The aging tyrants seem to feel that this movie could finally be their chance to get the recognition and admiration they deserve from an international audience. They idealize Hollywood leading men and fondly describe how they learned some of their favorite torture techniques from American gangster films. In fact, they take pride in being labeled “gangsters,” a term that is incessantly equated with “free men.” Congo, who is who is the most charismatic of the group, often cannot help showing off for the camera, telling us how he liked to get down to business torturing and killing after enjoying Elvis movies.
At other times, Congo appears to be looking for sympathy as a victim of his own horribleness, and his claims of intolerable recurring nightmares, even in the face of the pride he clearly feels in his historical role, come across as fairly authentic. But is his internal, psychological conflict for real? Or is he an ultra-manipulative charmer who lacks the ability to feel empathy or remorse (i.e., a prototypical psychopath)? When he revisits a massacre site, is he recoiling in disgust as he replays the memories in his mind? Or is he just going through the motions in front of the camera, perhaps in an attempt to establish his acting bona fides?
The film raises other difficult questions. How appropriate is it for commercial artists and their sponsors to reward unrepentant and unprosecuted mass murderers with the opportunity to glorify themselves, even if it also means a chance to document detailed testimony of their atrocities?
What are the ethics of such a genre-busting art form? In one sequence, children are seen wailing and shedding tears after participating in a reenactment of an orgiastic massacre. Since the filmmakers inspired this episode, do they have some level of responsibility for exposing these kids to such an upsetting experience? Were children traumatized in the making of this film?
When I asked Oppenheimer about the crying children the night he won the festival’s top prize, he initially told me that, yes, he thought some of them were probably traumatized—and then he changed his mind. (He added that the 159-minute cut of the film, which was the version I saw, leaves out a series of casting try-outs with the children conducted by the thugs, who are actually their fathers. Another 116-minute version of the film apparently includes these scenes.)
Putting aside the question of artistic responsibility, the extraordinary power of this film lies in its uncanny and sustained close-up into the psychology of mass murder. Are these men monsters, plain and simple? Or do they warrant some degree of empathy and a more complex emotional response, like that we give to Tony Soprano?
In addition to its considerable artistic merit, The Act of Killing carries potential for justice and reconciliation. Due to the myriad admissions of war crimes that the film captures, it should end up being an important legal document. Whether this happens or not may be up to how audiences respond, and whether they take action. Ideally, it would lead to some degree of accountability, both for the alleged acts undertaken by the men on the screen as well those of the Western politicians behind the scenes who gave their support. Here’s hoping it gets plenty of screenings in both The Hague and Washington, D.C.
The Act of Killing, a joint Danish-Norwegian-British production, is scheduled to be released in 30 U.S. cities in the summer of 2013.