Pitch perfect in audacity. Grim in worldly assertions. Cautiously hopeful for human rights, but knowing just as same. Surprising. Beautiful. Cruel. Pathetic. The Act of Killing is an astonishing film. With or without the Academy, it should be considered the best documentary of 2013. Here's why.
We are used to cruelty and entertainment in fictional films. In fact, we are over-comfortable, in my opinion. And we are used to re-enactments of violent events in documentaries, often so terribly done that the events become less unsettling than they should be. Milquetoast. We must become uncomfortable with these.
The Act of Killing is different. It documents the genocide of 500,000 ethnic Chinese, intellectuals and communists in Indonesia through crude and often beautiful re-enactments by the actual killers. This is new. Killers have always attracted our attention, but few have been given license, or had the courage, to show us their deeds in a popular venue, as if it were pop culture. In this sense, the film combines the dark side of horror films with a re-enactment that takes place within the story, not as an add-on feature. And it's truthful.
Here, genocidal killers have become the movie stars they always hoped they would be. It's as if we asked Charles Manson to recreate the scenes of his murders. I suspect he would do it and enjoy it. But how would we feel about ourselves?
To summarize the plot: Unrepentant killers from this Indonesian bloodbath, little known outside the Pacific, joyfully celebrate and re-enact their killings in front of the camera, fictionalizing their triumph and honoring their work. The killers happen to be movie buffs who worked in a theater in the 1960s, across the street from one of the places they murdered people. They gleaned torture techniques from Hollywood films that they would then try out on their victims.
Imagine buying popcorn from some guy at IFC Center in the West Village and knowing that there were people being murdered (with approval from Albany or Washington D.C.) right across the street, above that pleasant Belgian beer bar with that interior courtyard thing. That's how real this film is.
While watching The Act of Killing, I had the distinct impression -- a sense that was, however, not entirely real, or perhaps "all too Real," to speak of Lacan by way of Zizek -- that we have moved beyond the moral pronouncements of the Geneva Conventions (1949), the U.N. Charter (1945) or even the Habeas Corpus Act (1679). We've developed a dark playfulness that is difficult to assess, although we know full well that it has real consequences.
During one moment in the film, Anwar Congo, our anti-hero, states plainly that what he has done is no different from what the U.S. has done, no different from the deeds of any other triumphant warrior. The winners define the terms. Or, as Karl Rove was fond of saying, "We're an empire now. We create our own reality." It's as if Indonesia was replicating U.S. policy, which, in the mind of Mr. Congo, it was.
We know implicitly that Congo and Rove are right, or perhaps they have become right over time. But what does this mean and how terrible is it? To me, it speaks to a profound shift in the mental construct of what is fiction and what is reality. This seismic shift is played out in The Act of Killing where men play-act their violent past. We have seen this theatrical technique used effectively with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But what does it mean for a popular film to take on this effort in the non-policy arena? How do people unaffected by the genocide -- unknowing of it, in fact -- benefit or grow for the staged productions? Should they benefit or grow from them? Or are they engaged in some other sort of psychological process, perhaps a congratulations of the ego, or even something else as yet unknown?
I fear that this Real -- implicitly and surreally with us in human violence first and then projected virtually across the globe for a visually grotesque feast -- is overwhelming our sense of inalienable rights, our sense that respect for other people is worthwhile and ethical. We do not feel safe.
People are not equal and we know it.
The democratic laws we have attempted to put in place and uphold are failing in the very countries the world had, in the past, come to see as beacons of enlightenment, so much so that obvious transgressions like the mass killings in Indonesia are able to go under the radar for decades and, worse, are able to assert an equality with the U.S. (in its humanistic ideals) that holds some legitimacy.
The Act of Killing suggests and nearly confirms the darkness on the horizon.
It seems to me that The Act of Killing, among other media and other societal developments of the past decade, signals a new phase, perhaps initiated by U.S. actions post-911, in which we have accepted immorality as the de-facto state of human existence. We are immoral (and sometimes moral) humans in an amoral world, to butcher the works of Reinhold Niebhur. The dichotomies don't function any more, if they ever did in their hopeful rhetoric. Our lives would certainly be more clear if we understood ourselves as moral beings in an immoral world.
This is a profound film of our time. It speaks to a horrific collusion of violence and entertainment that is beyond both policy and dirty fun. The facts, and not the film itself, appear to both reduce the importance of and justify the murder and subjugation of other people. This weakening of human rights, one thousand years in the making if you count the Magna Carta, seems to me to be gaining force.
Reports so far indicate that The Act of Killing has had almost no effect on accountability Indonesia. Why? There is a weak type of explanation that comes from the human rights community and it goes something like this: 1) Democratic institutions are not in place. 2) Some of those in power participated in the killings and now block investigations. 3) People are afraid to speak out. All of this is true and real. But the explanations don't, in my opinion, get to the heart of the matter. What I fear, more than any of this, is that The Act of Killing confirms what we already feel to be true: human rights are dying because killers on the international stage are able to play-act killing. Not just Congo, but Rove, too. Human beings take our deaths more lightly than we should, and we know better.