Review: The Act of Killing

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It doesn’t matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster. Perhaps we can’t understand Cathy, but on the other hand we are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water? Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong.

But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free? Would not such a man be our monster, and are we not related to him in our hidden water? It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them. 

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I know a man in jail for killing another man. I suppose if you consider all your old High Schoolmates, you will know, at the very least, a rapist or child molester. But what I wanted to highlight is that the man who I know is a convicted killer was quite nice to me in High School, and he was thoughtful, and charitable.

I first met him in a music history course. He was always very stoned, and I wrote a paper or two for him. Once, before the teacher arrived, he managed to sit at a piano and play a classical piece that no one recognized. He had apparently taken lessons while living with his grandmother.

One time at lunch a wannabe thug knocked me onto the ground and then grabbed the ass of the white girl I was with. Our convicted killer grabbed our assailant and told him he was fucking with a good white boy. I was a freshman then and that awkward moment didn’t even come close to eclipsing all my other awkward freshman moments. Though not being able to defend myself was really embarrassing.

But our convicted killer wasn't just kind to me. Once, a friend of mine who was bullied quite a bit forgot his lunch money and started crying. Our convicted killer asked him why he was crying and gave him twenty dollars to buy lunch with (twenty dollars our convicted killer made from hustling and slinging dope, no doubt).

A year before I moved away from Oklahoma, I was delivering pizzas. Our convicted killer answered the door on one of my deliveries and seeing it was me he showed me into the house locking the door behind me. There were three or so men rolling jammers and sorting there various forms of drugs that I have no reference for. In the midst of this, he told them that I was cool and offered to tip me with a pitbull puppy from a litter that he was training to fight. He told me the puppy would love me and bite anyone who it sensed my distaste for. I declined because I have always hated puppies.

I think about all these moments when I consider how viciously he murdered his victim. Did he stop being good? When did he become a killer; before the act or after? Why didn’t I accept that pitbull puppy and give it to someone I hated.

These and more unrefined thoughts came to mind when I watched The Act of Killing. The project itself is incredible for the mere fact that the entire documentary is of Josh Oppenheimer filming mass murders gleefully reenacting their mass murders.

The show is worth the watch if for no other reason than to expand your categories of genocides: Germany industrialized it, Rwanda bootstrapped it, America outsourced it, Israel spiritualized it, and Indonesia gleeified it.

Gleeified it?3 I really mean that they took a weird Indonesian Mashup of American film in that the mass murderers start off as scalping tickets for American films they love (1964), then have a chance to act these movies out in real life by becoming gangstas and killing Chinese/Communists (1965-1966), and then they get to reenact these killings (2012) for an American film (so they think) using a mashup of their favorite American movie genres (.. dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodelling cowboys..).

There were times during The Act of Killing that I suspected Josh Oppenheimer was taking too much of an editor's license. I thought, surely these mass murderers are not this unselfaware. They talk gleefully of raping 14 year old girls (delicious, one says), of stuffing wood up a man's anus till they died, of burning down villages, of decapitation, of stabbings, and of humanely strangling with a wire.

And then they reenact these things out without hesitation for the camera while being publicly praised by Indonesian media and politicians. "The word 'gangsta' comes from the english word for free man," one politician says, "and Indonesia needs free man..." It is worth noting that the word, etymologically, does not necessarily convey this, but in Indonesia the idea has rooted itself culturally in such a way that etymological logic isn’t needed.

The most two important scenes come at the end of the documentary. One in which the main character is confronted by the feelings he feels when he plays a victim being choked to death. It was incredibly fascinating to watch him try and process it. But even more important for me is the last scene with the main character. We can tell by his undyed hair (the documentary begins with Anwar’s hair being white he dyes it black for the filming) that the scene was filmed in the very beginning of the project. Before the reenactments would challenge the main character’s thoughts. Our main character shows the place where he killed hundreds of people, and he starts dry heaving. For me this shows that while he may not have felt guilt, from the beginning grief was mixed into his glee.

  • 1. (The Act Of Killing on IMDB.com)
  • 2. I can't help but add a footnote concerning the banality of evil. One wonders what we should say when encountering it in a film like the act of killing rather than a still photo like that of The last Jew in Vinnitsa. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the banality of evil. “The neutral expressions on the shooter and his uniformed audience pretty well encapsulate that concept: they could be watching a barber cut hair, instead of the heartless extermination of innocents. Humans can adapt to endure almost anything, but in doing so, they sometimes perpetuate incredible evil. The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.” See rarehistorical photos for further information
  • 3. Here I admit to having some fun with a recent example from pop culture of our tendency to mashup/mix things we like. I steal the useage of gleeify from a post about advertising in which the term is used as such: “We have a tendency in the industry to Glee-ify ideas. In other words, we combine two totally separate ideas or innovations and combine them in a quasi mashup; Programmatic Upfronts being the ‘mashup’ in this instance. These are two ideas: one trying to capture the innovation fervor of the industry (programmatic) and the other trying to tie itself back to a tried and true buying practice in the industry (the upfront)...”