How we frame what we encounter matters enormously. Take documentary reenactments. Reenactments say, in effect, the events being represented do not represent what the events for which they stand would represent. They represent a retrospective attitude toward the original events, which may be that of a character or omniscient narrator. They always convey the perspective, or voice, of the filmmaker as well. Some reenactments remain disguised as representing contemporary events directly such as we find in Nanook of the North, Coal Face or Night Mail so that the irony may be lost, or, if discovered, treated as deception. More usually, documentaries embed reenactments as acknowledged reconstructions (fictional representations) of historical but originally unfilmed events within a larger context of authentic representation. But this need not be the case, as The Act of Killing amply demonstrates.
In The Act of Killing, the mise en scène of historic but unfilmed events derives primarily from the film’s subjects—gangsters who formed, at the Indonesian government’s behest, death squads to capture and execute alleged Communists in 1965-66. The aging but unrepentant gangsters frankly recount their past exploits, demonstrate their grizzly methods, and reenact their actions through the filter of Hollywood film genres (most notably, western and gangster films). The reenactments take the form of stylized typifications. Various scenes make it clear that the government still honors and protects these men and the paramilitary group, Pancasila, to which they belong, allowing them to speak with complete impunity and minimal remorse. They may even still be doing what they did so long ago.
What is yet more unhinging for the viewer is the looming impression that a sharp distinction between reenactments and authentic documentary representation fails to materialize. The gangsters live out their own phantasmatic representations of their current state of mind, which Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, refuses to label either openly or with a wink. To what extent their speech and action in the present is another form of calculated performance becomes acutely undecidable. A lavish musical number amidst lush vegetation with dancing women surrounding and venerating the gangsters as though they were tropical deities is clearly their fantasy, but the TV talk show that praises their past exploits and celebrates the film they’re making (the one we see), and the principal gangster’s return to a place of execution to stumble and retch, as if unable to control his body’s revulsion as what he did, near the film’s conclusion, are less clearly so. Is the TV talk show what Anwar and his buddies imagine such a show would be like or did Oppenheimer document an actual broadcast?[iii] Is the reenactment of a village massacre indeed too savage, as a government minister, who helps orchestrate it, states, or a prime example of the reason why the gangsters, and the government they serve, should be feared, as he then goes on to claim? For killers so self-aware of their image and the role of movies in shaping it, is a show of remorse near the film’s conclusion, even if somewhat genuine, not also a possible attempt to earn a little sympathy before the final fade to black? Does the fact that Anwar Congo retches but does not vomit suggest he is going through the motions of showing contrition or is it simply the best he can honestly do?
The film withholds the visible winks that would allow us to sort social from psychic reality. The killers reconstruct a past and live out a present that glorifies their crimes. The many government figures who appear in the film make it clear that these men continues to possess considerable use value for the Indonesian state. The current situation takes on the form of a phantasmatic nightmare of corruption and terror. By giving the gangsters such free reign and by depicting such a depraved social structure, the film withholds, as did, in another key, Luis Buñuel in Land without Bread, the independent, non-ironic perspective we anticipate and desire so that we may distinguish the phantasmatic from its surrounding reality.[iv] Instead of gradually dissipating, the sense of confounding doubt that launches Man Bites Dog intensifies. The Act of Killing unhinges our grasp on social reality to a degree most films labeled mockumentary do not even begin to approximate. Like the son who withdraws at the sign of his mother’s stiffened body, do we recoil in horror at these men’s gruesome descriptions of mass murder, only to be told, by their nonchalant demeanor and boastful candor, that we ought not be afraid of our feelings of admiration and respect?
These encounters with irony involve paradox: things are and are not what they seem. Such paradox is less logical than existential. It depends on the lived relationship between filmmakers, social actors (or film subjects) and viewers; it occurs within a frame that one individual or entity, usually the filmmaker, controls. It invites the extension of belief or trust in what is said, even as it confounds us. Existential paradox involves a corporeal experience: it registers in our very bones. Akin to what have come to be called “body genres” (pornography, horror, melodrama and the like) the ironic text, unlike the contemplative object of classic aesthetics, produces a visceral affect: it boggles the mind and unnerves the body; it confounds our sense of certainty.
This excerpt if from a forthcoming article, hence it is a bit in media res but still a fairly autonomous response to a most disturbing film. It is definitely the most powerful film I’ve seen this year.
[iii] Possible winks include the presence of prosthetic heads on a table in front of the show’s hostess, presumably representing the killers’s victims, an audience composed primarily of Pancasila members, the use of English rather than Indonesian, which prevails in most of the scenes, and the completely uncritical veneration of these killers by the hostess. It seems far too fantastic to be real, but, on the film’s website, Oppenheimer describes how the state television network learned of his production, arranged to produce the talk show and broadcast it nationally. It became another iteration of the narrative of terror and power that has supported the existing regime since 1965. “Production Notes,” http://theactofkilling.com/background/. Accessed 8/8/2013.
[iv] In Moi, un Noir (1958), Jean Rouch invites a group of Nigerian friends to play out their own fantasies as movie stars—from Edward G. Robinson to Eddie Constantine, as they journey to Cote d’Ivoire in search of work. The blurring of fantasy and reality, though, is greatly attenuated, and interpreted, by Rouch’s voice-over commentary, a device Oppenheimer refuses to employ.