The act of killing

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Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” is a blistering unblinking gaze at the humungous nature of human cruelty.

IMAGINE a documentary set against the backdrop of the violence unleashed against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, in which those who killed, maimed, raped, disembowelled pregnant women and destroyed foetuses gloat about how they went about it, in gory detail; how they keep sickening score of how many each of them dealt with. In the current climate of political correctness, you are not allowed to proceed with that imagination without matching it, balancing it, with another remembrance: of the slaughter of, and equally despicable atrocities inflicted on, Sikhs in 1984. So go ahead and be even-handed and imagine a parallel documentary on the perpetrators of that carnage, too, crowing about their handiwork. And, since it is only imagination, and really costs nothing, take it a step further and think of some of these people, in the process of their lending themselves to the making of the documentary, revisiting what they have done, and, unknown to them, their veneer of grisly accomplishment peeling off to reveal a throb, a twinge of self-doubt.

This is very different from an institutionalised and cathartic “truth and reconciliation” effort where victimiser and victim come face to face and, sometimes, to terms with one another; although such an exercise may have been, in both the instances of 1984 and 2002, far more useful than the rigmarole of a commission of enquiry whose proceedings drag on and on until they are in a limbo. There was a semblance of a truth and reconciliation moment when two iconic and polar opposite images of the 2002 Gujarat riots recently came together.

The tailor Qutubuddin Ansari, whose visage of victimhood—his shirt specked with blood, his eyes brimming with tears of desperateness, his hands folded in a beseeching prayer for pity and succour—is seared in the public memory, and the cobbler Ashok Mochi, whose visual as victimiser—his arms thrust aggressively in the air, an iron rod held aloft in the right hand, with a saffron band around his head, a menacing mien and a fire raging in the background—is also etched in the popular consciousness, shared the same platform in Kannur in Kerala, made up and shook hands and declared themselves on the same side against Modi. The import of that meeting did not, perhaps, proceed beyond a photo-op, but it was, nevertheless, significant. There is a potential documentary there in what took Mochi and Ansari through what they respectively did and underwent, and what now brings them together.

It is in the former category of the hatchet man willingly collaborating with the documentarist and unwittingly coming face to face with his own hideousness that Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killingbelongs. It is a throwback (only in terms of reference; there is no period recreation or footage) to Indonesia in 1965-66 when Suharto displaced Sukarno and it was open season on all communists in the population, more than 500,000 of whom (or who were assumed to be communists) were ruthlessly killed in a purge across the country.

Four decades later, it does not take Oppenheimer too much effort to seek out those who did the actual killing, because they are not shying away, are not repentant or remorseful, and are in fact eager to brag about what they did. Communism and communists continue to be seen as pathogens that need to be kept out of the body politic of Indonesia even today. Those who persecuted and exterminated them continue to enjoy the status of folk heroes. Oppenheimer encounters 40 such eager beavers before he settles on the forty-first, Anwar Congo, an elderly, benign-looking man, as the main character, and a handful of his contemporaries and younger cohorts as the real-life cast of his film. Congo has the personal satisfaction of having himself killed 1,000 persons, in a variety of ways.

Imagination plays a crucial role in the work, but not in sanitising or obfuscating the callous cruelty that drives its protagonists. It becomes a clever hook to draw them out in their incriminating entirety by pandering to their Hollywood fixations and using role play and re-enactment as devices to get them to graphically, in eerily dead earnest, recapitulate their crimes.

When we come across news, in the daily media, about the police taking an accused person who has admitted to his crime to the scene of the crime to re-enact the crime, we pass by it as a routine investigative chore which combines some logistics and some forensics to establish a foolproof case or to fully understand the modus operandi of the criminal. But when the criminal, with an air of assurance of impunity and approval for his deeds, volunteers details and takes the investigator (in this case the film-maker and his team) through a conducted tour of the locations of his murders, recounting in chilling clinical detail how he tortured and killed, all of this as if particular to establish his stamp of ownership on what to us is repulsive violence, the sheer description of which makes us cringe, but to him is a job well done, or should one say, well executed, we don’t want to look and yet can’t look away.

It is not as if the film-maker’s coolly homicidal subject belongs to a different moral universe. The killer is now a fond grandfather who plays with his grandchildren, was even then, when he took to and led a life of killing, full of the zest for the good life, loved Hollywood movies and Western pop, idolised John Wayne and the way he went after the “Red Indians”, and Elvis Presley and his musical flamboyance, and Al Pacino as mobster boss, in fact initially made a living peddling movie tickets in the black, was fond of stylish hats, good clothes and cuisine and drinks and fishing and the rest. It was perhaps as normative to be all this and be pathologically anti-communist at the same time in Indonesia of the mid-1960s as it was in the national mood that prompted the persecutions and prosecutions of communists or their sympathisers in the United States by the House of Representatives Committee on un-American Activities from the late 1930s.

In fact, the U.S. state and Hollywood stand indicted at one remove in The Act of Killing. At one point in the film, when the question of accountability for their crimes and the possibility of being hauled up before the International Criminal Court at The Hague are raised, Anwar Congo’s friend and fellow executioner from 1965, Adi Zulkadry, counters scoffingly that it would not be in the interest of the West to do so, that after all George W. Bush too has his Guantanamo Bay and his stigmatise-and-eliminate operation against Saddam Hussein and the lives of numerous Iraqi civilians to answer for. Oppenheimer himself, who has, for over a decade, been tracking the circumstances of the massacre of the communists in Indonesia in 1965, states categorically in an interview that it was a “U.S.-sponsored genocide”, with the U.S. providing money, weapons and communication support to carry it out.

Hollywood is as much implicated as imbricated, in terms of its formal and aesthetic structuring and the inspiration its central figure draws from its film lore, in the work. In 1965, the Indonesian Left had led a boycott of American films because the head of the American Motion Picture Association in Jakarta, the body responsible for importing films from the U.S., was revealed to be a CIA operative involved in the overthrow of the Sukarno government. The languid pace of The Act of Killing is part of the film-maker’s ploy and does not, in any case, detract one whit from the visceral engagement in which it holds you. There is, you know, something devastating waiting for you round the next corner, and the next. The director provides time and space for his characters to just be themselves, and introduces, every once in a while, a stretch of make-believe atmospherics for them to reconstruct their crimes as conscious and conscientious actors on camera, or driving the action themselves in their alternate role play of directors behind the camera. They are on a macabre roll. The overall effect is weird and surreal and more truthful than factual.

There are in the documentary, shot over a longish span between 2005 and 2011, snippets of contemporary life and political practice in Indonesia which come across as anachronistic enough to make us wonder whether we are talking about this day and age, and indicate a virulently unrelenting mindset against the Left, which has, since it was literally wiped out in the mid-1960s, struggled to cling on in the margins. Oppenheimer, in a television interview, describes his own impression of this strange political psychosis akin to wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust with the Nazis still in power there.

We see the incestuous, blood-stained relationship between people like Anwar Congo and the leaders and cadres of the Pancasila Youth, a notorious banding of rogues and thugs who did Suharto’s dirty job for him of snuffing out the communist resistance and physically eliminating anyone suspected to be a communist. We see the new generation of the Pancasila brigade, now supposedly three-million-strong, whipping themselves up into a frenzy of hatred for anything liberal, their leader taunting detractors, saying, “They say Pancasila Youth is a gangster organisation. If we are gangsters I am the biggest gangster of all.” He then proceeds to the golf course where between hitting the ball he laments that “we have too much democracy. It’s chaos… things were better under military dictatorship.” The rather stupid epicurean motto he lives by is “Relax and Rolex”.

We see, even more disturbingly, Anwar Congo viewing his shot footage on a television screen and rather irritated with himself for wearing the wrong kind of clothes—he always wore, he reminisced, dark colours when he was engaged in his killing, nothing like the white trousers in which he was now canned recreating it—and for laughing out of place and not giving the scene the criminal gravitas it called for. We see him demonstrate with verve and fun how he and his accomplices would be seated on a table, their legs dangling, all of them gaily singing together, “Hello Bandung, city of good times… city of happy memories… the enemy’s burned you down, now let’s win you back”, while one leg of the table was all along placed on the throat of their victim lying facing upward on the floor, crushing his windpipe.

We see him almost become his old agile self as he shows, with nimble dance steps thrown in, and on the same rooftop terrace of the building that he did it days on end, the bloodless (there’s no need to clear the bloody mess after, you see) and labour-saving ( you only need one man to do the job) advantage of garrotting victims using a long length of cable: tie one end of the cable firmly to a pipe or pillar, pass it a short stretch later around the victim’s neck, and pull at the other end until his life is wrung out. We see too his younger cronies extorting money, with threats and insults, from the shopkeepers in the ethnic Chinese quarter of the town. The mix of long suffering and fear on their faces, as they hasten to pay this ragtag bunch of bullies its demanded price to leave them alone, is poignant.

The legacy of evil that seems to sit lightly on Anwar Congo as he goes about his daily chores with jaunty steps and a tune on his lips has, however, begun to eat into him in the process of the making of the film. When we have almost given him up as irredeemably damned, he begins to crack under the weight of his crimes.

The Act of Killing is a blistering unblinking gaze at the humungous nature of human cruelty. What is really frightening is that it can all be recalled and recounted, by those who have revelled in it, so normally, like a quotidian narrative. The film was nominated in the documentary category at the recent 86th Academy Awards, but lost to Twenty Feet from Stardom. Just as well, because Hollywood was an ineluctable part of Anwar Congo’s curious mental make-up. The film somehow seems better off without an award from the same source that was part of its problem.






Printable version | Apr 5, 2014 4:57:57 PM |