Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence

There is no overstating the greatness of The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary revolving around a series of the perpetrators of Indonesia’s state sanctioned mass killings of suspected communists in 1965-66. He interviews a number of the killers, many politicians and other prominent figures who were either witnesses or participants. But the central figure is Anwar Congo, an eccentric and disarmingly charming former killer. He is known by all as one of the most prolific killers. The film follows Anwar around during his daily routine of reminiscing with other former killers and attending prominent political events where he is treated like a hero, and during this we get stirringly impromptu moments where Anwar admits to suffering from nightmares stemming from a moral reckoning that seems to be taking a increasing toll on his mental state. Contrasted with this, Oppenheimer devises a scheme to get Anwar and his brood of accomplices and hanger-ons to recreate scenes of torture and violence against suspected communists in the style of popular Hollywood genres.

What you come to realize is that a period of history that can only be described as a genocide was perpetrated by a gang of thugs who wanted to live life like the movies, and a chaotic political moment allowed them to do so. Fast forward over forty years, and the same men are treated like heroes, and have continued to manipulate an entire country by means of propaganda and painting themselves as Indonesian John Waynes and Al Pacinos who saved their country from soulless savages. A brief light at the end of the tunnel is seeing Anwar Congo failing to escape the demons of his past. This is perfectly captured in a scene where he returns to a rooftop where he committed many murders and he is almost immediately overwhelmed by a surge of nausea and dry-heaving that leaves him unable to play the his manufactured role of tortured soldier. Hopefully this film and the exposure it has brought to a long overlooked period in history will lead to more of the perpetrators being racked by similar surges of guilt and moral reckoning.

The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing, is tough viewing. Act of Killing alternated between interviewing the killers and revealing how they justified their actions along with allowing them to recreate their actions through the remove of Hollywood-styled reenactments, and together this painted a clear portrait of men who, when in a chaotic political moment are given significant amounts power, use delusional action-movie-hero imagery to blind themselves to the atrocities they committed. Look of Silence has a seemingly more straight-forward set-up: Oppenheimer recruits the brother of a suspected communist who was murdered to interview the killers and their families. However, this approach yields deeply disquieting results. The killers that the brother encounters have even less guilt or moral conscience than Anwar Congo, and make only half-hearted attempts to show sympathy towards a relative of someone they were responsible for killing. The film’s set-up on paper sounds like a sure way to cause volatile and potentially violent encounters, but the end result is something even more difficult to interpret. Adi, the nickname for the brother who becomes Oppenheimer’s surrogate interviewer, is an incredibly level-headed guide. He watches footage of the killers boasting about their murders, and then in person asks the perfect questions to provoke responses that reveal the level of mass delusion consuming the killers and the people mindlessly accepting their actions. They talk about massacring people in great detail and explain it away as them protecting the country, protecting themselves, following orders, etc., and when Adi questions their logic and moral status they immediately become defensive. When he reveals that they were likely responsible, however indirectly, for his brother’s death, instead of showing compassion they try to escape responsibility, and when unable to convincingly (only to themselves) do so, they become aggressively defensive. However, the ravages of their actions seem to have been inflicted on their bodies and mental states because each killer is more decrepit and senile than the last. None have the remains of youth of Anwar Congo, these are men that are gradually becoming the embodiment of the death that they caused. 

The moments of humanity come briefly but powerfully: a man was with Adi’s brother the night he was murdered but managed to escape returns to the area where countless murders occurred, including Adi’s brother’s, and along the way prays to God to punish the killers and for him and Adi to remain virtuous and moral; Adi interviews a killer who has almost entirely lost his mental functions to senility, and when his daughter hears him talking about drinking blood to maintain his sanity during the killings and then learns that Adi’s brother was killed, she embraces him and, genuinely remorseful, calls him “family” with no hesitation in spite of their familial conflicts; and every scene involving Adi’s mother and father, both extremely old and still persevering in spite of enduring so much in their long lives. One of the climactic scenes where Adi confronts the family of one of his brother’s killers, the killer himself having died, sums up this agonizingly powerful film. When faced with the knowledge that their father was a killer who documented his actions in a self-published book, the killer’s sons grow defensive and repeat the same mindsets of the killers – forgot the past, but embrace the lessons they delivered, ignorance pardons moral responsibility, and regret is weakness – while the mother, incredibly old and suffering from health problems, is the lone source of compassion. 

The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are essential viewings because of the history and psychologies they document, but for writers they are vital reminders of just how close we remain to the kind of mass delusion that results in justified widespread violence. On the one hand, the modern means of spreading knowledge makes it nearly impossible to not be aware of the reality of these sort of sociological devolutions, but yet no matter how accessible knowledge is, humanity is never able to escape the susceptibility of mass delusion. We move, both mentally and physically, in a mob mentality, and this allows up to follow the mob and blind ourselves to the realities outside of it, which ultimately ends up being the truth. 

Watching these two films I found myself pondering on how fiction could react to the staggering madness of two non-fictional films. Watching these films gives you the sense that truth is stranger than fiction, and feeling that seems to be becoming all the more prevalent. And it makes the struggle of writing fiction that seems too extraordinary seem nonsensical. While this should be a creative relief, instead it feels more ominous. It doesn’t feel like a good thing that reality has become so chaotic and bizarre that at times it seems like no fiction could be strange enough to compete. While I don’t think this is the actual situation, it’s the flooding of information that the internet has provided us that has created this sensation, but it too often feels too close for comfort. 

With that in mind, the 20th century for Russia, not to mention many other countries such as China that were in a near-constant state of revolution, was an endless stream of chaos and at times downright apocalyptic level of drama, and it resulted in a staggering quantity of great literature (not to mention how much of it was repressed by the government). Should keep this in mind moving forward in these crazy times of ours.

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