The past inhabiting the present, and manipulated memory in The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) is a documentary about the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66. However, there is no archival footage from the genocide shown in the film. And rather than stating historical facts (whatever that means), the documentary deals with lies and fantasies relating to the genocide, which makes it a kind of anti-vérité documentary. With that being said – can it really be considered a documentary about the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66?
Linda Williams writes that: “It has become an axiom of the new documentary that films cannot reveal the truth of events, but only the ideologies and consciousness that construct competing truths – the fictional master narratives by which we make sense of events.” In this essay, I argue that The Act of Killing is about the past, and more specifically about the ways in which the past inhabits the present. It tells no absolute truth, because the film recognises that there is no such thing in documentary film. Rather, it should be understood as a film concerned with the ways a violent past is remembered and narrated, and in extension, how it is forgotten. I approach film as a memory device, and as a therapeutic medium.
The controversial documentary dives into the largely ignored subject of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66. In 1965, the government was overthrown by military groups, and with western aid around one million “communists”, including Chinese workers, intellectuals, farmers and anyone else opposed to the military were exterminated. To carry out the killings, the regime hired local gangsters. The documentary follows some of these gangsters today, who are successful and wealthy old men celebrated as national heroes, and lets them re-enact their killings in any ways they like. They seem to have no trouble talking about their crimes – on the contrary, they are happy to describe their killings in the most intimate detail. Oppenheimer explained that through the process of filming, however, he came to realize that this bragging was “not necessarily a sign of pride, but the opposite”. Anwar Congo, a man who himself estimates to have killed at least a thousand men, becomes the main character of the film, and Oppenheimer explains that he found Congo so interesting because “his pain was close to the surface”. In one scene, he smilingly demonstrates how strangulation by wire is the most effective and clean way to kill, and only minutes later, admits that he drinks and takes drugs in order to get rid of his nightmare.
This ties in with theories developed by Sigmund Freud in the 1920s. He illustrates how memory and perceptions work by comparing the mind to a Mystic Writing-Pad, a combination of a celluloid and a waxed paper where one writes on the rewritable celluloid paper while the text gets imprinted on the wax paper. Contrary to writing on a paper or with a piece of chalk on a slate, the Mystic Writing-Pad enables both erasing and rewriting, while at the same time leaving a permanent mark. Freud argues that the wax represents the unconscious and the celluloid paper represents the conscious, and suggests that while the conscious is ever invaded with flickering impressions that are replaced with new impressions, some leave a more permanent trace in the unconscious, including trauma. As will be elaborated on further on in this text, the film examines how the violence, fear and brutality of the genocide in Indonesia is oppressed by the perpetrators and the nation as a whole, but that it nevertheless has made a permanent mark in the collective wax paper.
Acting and re-enacting are central themes in the film, as well as the iconography of images. The gangsters were (and are still) big fans of American films, and as Congo explains: “When I was young, I always watched American films and imitated them. I watched them so intently… I felt like I was in the movie! […] I’d see such cool ways of killing. And I copied them.” Perverse fantasies that sprang out of movies influenced killing techniques and the gangster’s personal style, as well as informing the cultural memory of the genocide: by themselves and others, they are throughout the film referred to as gangsters, or “free men”, which also has political implications since the military regime were (and still is) pro-western. The past is in other words heavily romanticised. One of the gangsters, Adi, even admits that “That film is designed to make them look evil […] Of course it’s a lie.” When the gangsters are asked to re-enact their killing in any ways they want, the result is a bizarre mix of film noir, western, gangster film and musical: this is their fantasy. Through filmic iconography, they make sense of the past. This points as two things: how moving images can work to manipulate, or at least shape memory, and how feelings are held oppressed through this manipulation of memory.
In his landmark documentary Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann refused to use any archival footage from the Holocaust, an event he believed to be unrepresentable in images. Lanzmann was convinced that archival footage would add no further understanding of the Holocaust, on the contrary, he believed that it would weaken the understanding of such a complex event, in our fixation with images as a source of truth. Instead, he depicted overgrown railroads that once transported people to the camps and interviewed people living near the camps, letting them describe their memory of the burning smell. “The Holocaust comes alive not as some alien horror foreign to all humanity but as something that is, perhaps for the first time on film, understandable as an absolutely banal incremental logic and logistics of train schedules and human silence”, Linda Williams writes. In its everydayness, the film demonstrates how the past haunts the present.
Williams elaborates on this notion by pointing at a specific scene in the film. The director staged a scene with the Jewish survivor Simon Srbnik, who used to run errands for the Nazis at a concentration camp as a boy. In this scene, he is surrounded by people from a town nearby from where he worked, who remember him as a child and who rejoice in his survival. The tone changes, however, when one of them starts telling an anti-Semitic tale of a rabbi and a SS-solider. Williams argues that this scene effectively shows how the ideas that enabled the Holocaust are reproduced in the present, and how Srbnik’s trauma can be caught in his gaze at this specific moment.
There is a similar scene in The Act of Killing. Congo’s neighbour Suryono, who is to play a victim in the film, has an idea that he wants to share and tells the traumatic story of how his stepfather was killed when he was young. Suryono laughs almost compulsive while telling it, but even the gangsters fall silent in this scene – they seem to realise that the story is not at all funny to Suryono, even though he assures them that he’s not criticising them and that he just wants to contribute to the film. The scene continues, and after the group has rejected Suryono’s idea for the film, he goes on to play the suffering victim with such credibility that the spectators recognise Suryono’s oppressed emotions. In other word: embedded as a funny anecdote, we get a testimony. And embedded in a fictional character, we get genuine emotions.
In this manner, we get glimpses at the past through the creation of the film within the film and its fiction. Furthermore, the past also gets reactivated through scenes of self-examination. When watching a scene in which he plays a victim, Congo suddenly goes quiet and then asks the director if the people he killed felt the way that he felt in this scene. Later, in the last scene, when revisiting the place where he earlier in the film happily demonstrated different killing techniques, Congo starts to retch as if to throw up. When the manipulated memory of the genocide has been externalised onto a technological medium, film, it becomes a tool of self-examination for Congo, by forcing him to enter another subjectivity. Moreover, it functions a sort of a therapeutic medium, not unlike like the violent films that Alex in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) is forced to watch while injected with drugs in order to reshape his neurological and psychological reactions to ultraviolence. In an article about moving images as therapy, Pasi Väliaho discusses how a virtual reality-programme designed for soldiers with PTSD can help reach the organism’s internal milieus of the soldiers and therefore have a therapeutic effect. Väliaho writes that “[t]he reality of images in this process becomes a matter of biology and the evolution of the species, instead of being anthropological and communicative”. In the scene where Congo keeps wanting to throw up, the images he has seen of himself as a victim seem to have acted on him to the degree that the outcome is not only psychological but also physical, as if the film managed to reach into his unconscious.
In all its uniqueness, The Act of Killing has similarities to Shoah in its refusal to use archival footage to depict a historical event. Still, it is about a specific, traumatic part of Indonesia’s history. Both films examine how the past is narrated and made sense of, and how it lives on in the present. The Act of Killing thematises the role film can play in this narration, in the realisation of the gangster’s perverse fantasies for the film within the film. Furthermore, in the scenes with Congo in the end, it demonstrates how film as a memory device and as a therapeutic medium can bring back oppressed memories, and help reconsider a given narration.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Freud, Sigmund. “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad”. In The Archive, edited by Charles Mereweather. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006, 20-24.
Guynn, William. Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe. New York: Colombia University Press, 2016.
Harkins-Cross, Rebecca. “Performing History, Performing Truth: The Act of Killing”. Metro Magazine 180: 90-95.
Swimmer, Jeff. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Väliaho, Pasi. “Affectivity, Biopolitics and the Virtual Reality of War”. Theory, Culture & Society 29 (March 2012): 63-83.
Williams, Linda. “Mirrors without Memory: Truth, History, and the New Documentary”. Film Quarterly 46, no 3 (spring 1993): 9-21.