Breaking a code of deafening silence
An extraordinary new film proves that it is possible for us to like a mass murderer
Is it possible to like a mass murderer? One of the most extraordinary and unnerving documentaries ever to be made, The Act of Killing, proves that it is. This film by Joshua Oppenheimer is not about taking the mass murders on some sort of redemptive journey. Instead, it is about breaking a code of silence that has existed in Indonesia since the genocide in 1965, a code of silence that enabled the killers to freely swagger about and boast about their murdering techniques.
The Act of Killing will be screened in the Darklight Festival in Smithfield next Saturday night.
The film came about when Joshua was filming workers on an Indonesian plantation where they were spraying a pesticide that was destroying workers' livers, but they were too worried to form a union.
Joshua discovered the reason for this was because their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents had been killed, or imprisoned, for being in a plantation workers' union back in 1965.
Curious about the seeming acceptance and the fear that still underlay it, Joshua asked where he would find the killers, and was told by one man that his next-door neighbour had killed his aunt.
Joshua went to the neighbour, who – intrigued by this man with a camera – started talking. The man explained how he was now the plantation boss because he had drowned hundreds of people at the time.
And this was related to Joshua in front of the man's very young granddaughter, who appeared simply bored by it, "as though she'd heard it so many times. I could see that maybe he was boasting as a means of intimidating people, but that didn't explain why he was boasting in front of his grandchild''. So he started interviewing mass killers.
"Anwar Congo was the 40th perpetrator I filmed and, the very first time I met him, he took me up to the roof to show me where he'd killed people and how he'd done it. He kills with wire around the throat. What was unique about Anwar was that his pain was right there on the surface. He said to me that he'd had nightmares and traumas, and to forget all that he would go out drinking, taking drugs and dancing, and then say 'look, I'll show you what a good dancer I am'.
"He was dancing on the spot where he had killed hundreds of people. I was clearly capturing one of the most outrageous, surreal, grotesque metaphors for impunity that I had encountered over the previous two years of filming and yet, clearly, his dancing was also some desperate attempt to somehow banish the horror that he has just spoken of.
"And that's when I started to recognise that this boasting, which had confounded me for so long, may not be what it appears to be at first. It may not be a sign of pride but something much more human, namely a sign that these men know that what they have done is wrong. Boasting and trauma might be two sides of the same coin."
After he filmed Anwar on the roof, Joshua did something he hadn't done with the 40 previous killers. He played back the footage he had just shot, wondering if Anwar would recognise the meaning of what he had done in the mirror of the footage.
"Anwar looks terribly disturbed but he doesn't dare say this is awful or this makes him look bad. Instead, he lies to himself and to me and says the problem is that the scene isn't good enough, his clothes aren't right, his acting isn't good, and he proposes an embellishment. We essentially replicated that same process again and again for five years where we would shoot one scene, he'd watch it and suggest the next one, which meant that he could keep running away from confronting the disgust he was feeling watching the previous scene.
"My reasons for continuing were not because I was trying to lead him to remorse, but because each new scene promises to be either a more naked allegory, with which I could expose what was rotten about this whole regime, or it was shedding new light on some aspect of this regime."
Did they get on?
"He's likeable. I think the whole premise of the film is that viewers approach a man like Anwar through my closeness and empathy for him. And despite everything, they somehow feel empathy. And see, of course, that the moral lie that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys.''
Joshua can't safely go back to Indonesia due to regular threats, but the film has had an extraordinary effect there. "After the film was nominated for an Oscar, the government finally realised it wasn't just going to go away and made a number of statements saying 'we hate the men in the film as much as anybody and what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity and we need reconciliation'.
"They stopped short of embracing the film, but it was an about-face on everything that the government had said up to that point about the killings being heroic."
THE ACT OF KILLING WILL BE SCREENED IN THE DARKLIGHT FESTIVAL IN SMITHFIELD NEXT SATURDAY (WWW.DARKLIGHT.IE) FOLLOWED BY A Q&A WITH JOSHUA.