The Act of Killing is available to stream on Netflix.
You may already know what The Act of Killing is. If you don’t, here’s a handy description from IMDB.com. It tells us that The Act of Killing is, “A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.” That’s basically an accurate description of the film. There are standard talking head interviews and the crew also follows their subjects into the streets as they mix and mingle (and extort) common people. It’s not all showbiz. The Act of Killing doesn’t attempt to contextualize the anti-communist killings of ’65 and ’66 or the men behind them. It doesn’t need to either, because this is a film about the essence of something, not the particulars. Suffice it to say that that a lot of communists were killed in those two years. I don’t mean to be blithe, but this is a film concerned with ideas for today, not the events of 40 years ago. If you want to read more, go here. The film plays less like a cerebral expose on genocide and more like some sort of mad scientist’s experiment or an elaborate practical joke. But the documentary presumption that what we are seeing is real, not artifice, and not matter how much The Act of Killing taxes our suspension of disbelief, it’s important to remember that all of this is very real.
The men depicted in The Act of Killing were part of the ’65-’66 Indonesian purge of communists. They are still lionized today by the Indonesian government and by large portions of the citizenry. From their depiction here, they reminded us of former athlete stars in America, men who’ve had their glory and can bask in the afterglow, signing autographs and demanding special privileges. Their way of life is an overt form of gangsterism. They recognize their actions as gangsterism, but like to play semantics with the word as a way of excusing their behavior and casually ignoring the consequences it has for others. None of that surprise me, even though seeing one man extort a local businessman was a little surreal: the type of thing you’d expect in a movie. Oh, wait, this is a movie.
What threw me for a curve was watching modern men espousing moral certitude about genocide. Genocide, for me has always been a bit of an abstraction. It’s an idea you see in history books or in Schindler’s List. It makes you think of Nazi’s, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or maybe even Bosnia in more recent years. But it’s always in the past and in another place. I’m well aware that there are genocides happening in other parts of the world now, but I don’t know of any genocides happening near me, geographically speaking. I’ve never actually met anyone who has claimed that genocide, in a specific case or as a general idea, was a moral high ground. It’s always an idea that someone else has, far, far away from me. Having grown up in the midwest and lives almost all my life in America (a short stretch in Canada about 13 years ago), everyone I’ve ever known has agreed, without exception, that genocide is morally repulsive and that it should be stopped. Both types of genocide are included here: ethic cleansing, political. I’ve met racist people, but no one who would advocate the mass killings of black people or any other minority. I’ve met people deeply entrenched in their own political ideology, but no one who would say that all Republicans or Democrats should be murdered. Genocide has always been a remote, foreign concept, always an idea that someone else has, far, far away from me. The Act of Killing hasn’t really changed that, because I still don’t know any genocide advocates personally and everyone depicted in the film lives half a world away. And even the men in this film, they weren’t advocating for the current killing of communists; they were reveling in their pasts and constantly insisting that the violent expulsion of communists was the right thing to do for Indonesia. They were right then and they are still right. The results – their own lavish lifestyles – prove them so.
What about the Hague? Not a problem, they say. Bring it on.
Do you have any regrets about your time then? Not really.
The Act of Killing is probably the strangest documentary we will see in a long time. In most documentary films we are impressed with the “real” (as if documentarians didn’t have a point of view that they are sharing, which is another discussion for another time), but here the “real” is unreal. Its characters are so casual that it had to be a joke, right? They must be bad actors, hired to play an elaborate prank on the art house film audiences that they know will eat this thing up. As one of those audience members, I ate The Act of Killing up, marveling at its subject’s bombast and candor, wondering how on earth anyone could get so close to them without throwing up.
And then I remembered that they were in my living room and I was not throwing up. I was eating dried cranberries and genocide was still an abstract idea.