The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012. UK release June 2013)
To even talk of there being possible detrimental effects associated with watching excessive ‘acts’ of film violence is to open oneself up to ridicule. The terms of the debate over such effects often revolve around simplistic behavioral determinism where one looks for the presence or absence of direct causal links between fictionalized and dramatized ‘acts’ of screened violence and ‘real’ acts of violence. Whilst suggestions of there being direct causal links are often brushed aside with the same casual ease that humans are often seen to be violently dispatched on screen, perhaps the more urgent need is broader and more philosophical. What are the deeper effects of repeatedly depicting the lack of consequences associated with ‘acts’ of brutality, sadism, torture, rape, and murder when presented as spectacular cinematic entertainment. The cool affective enjoyment of spectacular violence towards people within the frictionless coordinates of popular film often outweighs any meaningful moral consideration of them as subjects. Perhaps what should be asked is whether the performative ‘act’ of killing in the dominant mode of popular cinema is essentially contributing to fatal erosion of awareness and belief in the moral ecology of the human. We all become cool detached sniggerers at cinematic spectacles of violence, torture and death.
Consider the late Roger Ebert’s review of the stylish post-modern superhero film Kick Ass (2010), which he prefaced with the remark – “Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?” Ebert proceeded to write of the film’s morally reprehensible quality, with its depiction of an 11-year old girl becoming the superhero Hit-Girl. In the film this child superhero is shown being brutalized in the most vicious way (at one point she is hammered around the head by the bad guy), as well as dishing out extreme ultraviolence. The stylish frisson of repeatedly depicting brutal and sadistic violence being done to, or done by, a child takes it into deeply dark moral territory. None more so than in the way it consistently depicts the lack of feeling on her part for any of the killings she engages in, as well the distinct absence of any consequence for her acts. She is shown brutally dispatching dozens of bad guys in a lengthy sequence, stabbing, shooting and kicking them to death. For Ebert this “isn’t comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead. And the 11-year old apparently experiences no emotions about this….As I often read on the internet: hahahahaha.” The star of the film, Chloe Moretz, who plays Hit-Girl, recently enthused – “am I supposed to be the normal girl who goes to school and has this great life, or am I supposed to kill people and be a vigilante and be someone who fights crime?” For Ebert, Kick Ass is yet another film that regards human beings like empty video-game targets, mere objects to dispatch – “They’re dead, you win”. As Jim Carrey, star of the much-anticipated sequel, recently realized when he decided to boycott any publicity activity around the film’s release in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, “when kids in the age range of this movie’s home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.”
Anwar Congo, the dapper mass-murderer at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing documentary The Act of Killing, might well conceive of himself in the same terms as Moretz’s Hit-Girl. He too imagines himself to be the vigilante superhero of his own imaginary movie, brutally dispatching the “bad guys” with the same lack of emotion, feeling, conscience or understanding, yet struggling with the quotidian banality of the his everyday life, drinking, dancing, and having a good time. In 1965-6, in the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian military coup, Anwar and his motley collection of sharp-dressing cinema gangsters (who, up to this point in time, had subsisted by scalping cinema tickets to Hollywood movies) were elevated to becoming chief executioners of those deemed to be the enemy – communists. As Anwar says, killing happily, like in the movies. He describes joyfully dancing out of the cinema having just seen an Elvis movie and heading over the road to the small office where they would torture, interrogate and kill their victims. To date there has been no reckoning for the barbarism of the past simply because so many of the perpetrators remain in political power. As one of Anwar’s former colleagues says, the truth is written by winners.
For this film, which took nearly a decade to realize, Oppenheimer decided to concentrate his attention on providing a voice for the perpetrators, who are only too happy to brag of their brutal ‘acts’ of genocide, rather than their victims. Anwar and his fellow gangsters Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, along with the anti-communist paramilitary organization The Pancasila Youth, swagger on-screen like a nightmare of indulged children who see the world only in terms of the strong and the weak, the moneyed and the poor, the useful and the useless. They are clearly selfish and violent narcissists. However, this is no orthodox documentary that sets out to merely record their stories of the past. No camera records the discursive ‘truth’ of past events as they are spoken. Rather, Oppenheimer has them creatively recreate and re-present the past through their own efforts at cinematic reenactments. He hands them the camera and encourages them to wield it as a mirror on themselves and their actions.
The Act of Killing employs the classic film within a film structure, which provides a powerful insight into the connections between a dominant cinematic reality where killing is without consequence and the minds of real sadistic killers which it has shaped. This all seems so horribly appropriate. As things unfold it becomes clear that they had all conceived of themselves as characters in a Hollywood movie, as a patchwork of noir-gangsters, cowboys a la John Wayne, and dancers and singers from an Elvis movie, as they carried out the sadistic torture and execution of communist suspects. Theirs was a form of killing without feeling and without consequence, just like in the movies. The empty nature of their human targets is only underscored by an interview with a newspaper editor responsible for naming communist suspects, who concedes that they fabricated all of the evidence, and just arbitrarily denounced people for being communists. Indeed, Anwar still seems in the grip of a particularly cretinous anti-Communist propaganda film made by the military in the early 1960’s which depicts communists as brutal and monstrous sadists. For him this film, together with Hollywood films, inspired his own sadistic acts of killing, and continues to justify his own actions nearly fifty years later. He is hopelessly captivated by the coordinates of film, and appears as somebody who has completely internalized the cinematic grammar where the absence of moral consequence to the act of killing rules supreme. Once identified as communists he treated his victims as cinematic avatars, bad guys to be dispatched happily with a certain cinematic flourish and jouissance. There seems no better way to capture some kind of ‘truth’ of this than, yes, to have them make an actual movie depicting what they did. For Oppenheimer this is a ‘documentary of the imagination’. The brutal reality of the past in the minds of these men appears as some kind of sustained cinematic fiction, and Oppenheimer’s genius is to have them create a cinematic externalization of that fiction. In the process this cinematic expression alchemically transmutes into a dark ‘reality’ for the first time.
The cast of emotionally retarded bullies, narcissistic thugs, rapists, extortionists and murderers (who repeatedly refer to themselves as gangsters and free men), are shown casting for their movie in the streets of Medan in Northern Sumatra. As work begins on their film they proceed to stage straightforward representations of interrogation, torture and execution of communist suspects (including a truly horrific re-staging of the burning of a village of communist suspects), but this soon transforms into bizarre and dreamlike recreations in which Anwar casts himself as his own victim, being interrogated by a crazed cross-dressing psychopath. As they descend into the hellish territory of their own cinematic imagination the film becomes more an attempt to capture their past actions through inhabiting the Hollywood genres they admire and wish to see themselves depicted through. The full fury of their cinematic narcissism is unleashed. So we have Anwar deciding to recreate the slow execution of a communist suspect in the Sumatran jungle by dressing in full Western cowboy outfit, killing happily like John Wayne. In another scene the decapitated head of Anwar is tormented by a cross-dressing sadist (played by his friend Herman), who proceeds to cut off the penis from Anwar’s headless corpse and rub it into his face. There are bizarre musical scenes set to the soundtrack of Born Free, with glamorous dancing girls and the singing ghosts of dead communists thanking their executioners for releasing their souls to heaven. Any temptation to laugh along with all of this grotesque surrealism is more than countered by the knowledge that what is being enacted actually happened, and that the acts depicted are being recreated by those who originally carried them out. Unusually, you also gain an insight into their very peculiar perspective upon the acts as they recreate them, becoming a witness to a slow descent into the void where perverse fantasies of sadism and murder abound. It is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing experiences.
The way Oppenheimer depicts the increasingly unhinged nature of the film Anwar and his colleagues are making is particularly acute. It is significant that it quickly begins to bear no relation to their own explicit concerns to record the ‘truth’ of the past so that others can understand and appreciate their actions as patriotic, heroic and noble. At one point during filming they are offered a tangibly true story from a perspective outside of their own – a man acting as one of their victims under interrogation (one of Anwar’s neighbors) tells them of his stepfather who was taken away and murdered in the middle of the night for being Chinese (i.e. communist). They reject his story and insist that they have enough of their own already. Clearly there has been a shift away from staging recreations in order to document the past, in favour of an almost total immersion into the realm of narcissistic fantasy. From here on they begin to film ever more surreal and grotesque reenactments of their acts of killing, beginning with bizarre recreations of their own fantasies, nightmares and memories by framing them within the cinematic genres that have inspired them. Any straightforward telling of the ‘truth’ disappears in favour of a different kind of truth, one rarely captured by documentary films – a truth of the imagination. In this case it is a truth of sadistically murderous imagination. In this regard it begins to resemble the documentary work of Werner Herzog (who was an executive producer attached to the film). As with Herzog’s films, by unhinging itself from the straightforward documentation of ‘truth’, the reality of the historical events surrounding the mass extermination (up to two and a half million people), Oppenheimer’s film flows deeper into the stream of the darkest realms of imagination to uncover what Herzog has termed ‘ecstatic truth’. This is a truth that cannot be empirically accounted for cinematically, but is revealed through a form of filmic poetry. The affect of this is to bring us closer than many other films to the luminous darkness of human cruelty.
Ebert’s question resounds in the mind at the conclusion of the film; shall I have feelings or should this film make me remain cool? Anwar, having endured acting the part of being interrogated and garroted is shaken and brought to a limit of his endurance. This becomes evident as he watches the video footage on his television at home, and he expresses his view to Oppenheimer that for the first time he was really able to experience what his victims went through in their last moments. Oppenheimer replies that this is not true, it was much worse for his victims as they knew they were really going to die. The hermetic sealed vacuum of Anwar’s cinematic imagination appears to be undone in this simple moment. The realization of this ‘reality’ comes to dawn upon his soul, and is captured on his face. Later when he revisits the site where he carried out hundreds of executions this realization seems heavy upon his mind, and in a truly astonishing sequence he involuntarily vomits repeatedly. The sound and sight of Anwar trying to exorcise the bile of what he has done from his body is one of the most haunting things ever captured on film. There is a deep sadness in the sight of what little humanity Anwar has left trying to escape from his body, trying to vomit itself out. And through this deep sadness comes the concrete memorial to the countless voiceless victims of this specific brutal period in Indonesia’s history. A minor historical reckoning. Possibly because it is so anchored into the specific events of Indonesia in 1965-6, but not tied to exhaustively accounting for them, the film is able to ambitiously transcend this specificity and project us into broader realms where the question of the moral ecology of the human and the impact of film has upon it can be asked.
For all of popular cinema’s ambivalent success in creating the entertaining and consequence-free spectacle of the act of killing, it is with films such as Oppenheimer’s that film’s alternative capacity for opening up an affectively empathic space becomes apparent. The capacity for film to conjure up reflexive acts of conscience from the darkest abyss of acts of killing offers a possible filmic antidote to the toxic malaise of mainstream films. Film is revealed as being as much about empathic immersion, as it is in immersion in consequence-free spectacles of cruelty and killing. Nursed and comforted by the all-pervasive cinematic grammar of Kick Ass, Hostel, The Human Centipede, Inglorious Basterds, RED, etc., Oppenheimer’s film serves to remind us of the presence of the cinematically transgressed thresholds, that there are edges and consequences to killing, both personal and social. Quite rightly the film places us back into a state of deep discomfort over spectacles of killing happily, whether it is a child superhero killing bad guys happily or the spectacles of mass-killing indulged in by this year’s latest gangster movie or summer blockbuster. ‘LOL’ and ‘hahahahahaha’ have become replaced with the echoes of Anwar’s tortuous vomiting.
[First published on the New Left Project website in August 2013]
I’ve had two previous near-death experiences, one when I was a three year-old during a day out at the beach when I rushed into the sea and was immediately knocked over by a wave and pulled under the water, the other was a few years ago on the M40 when my daughter and I were caught up in an horrific high-speed pile-up. Despite only being three years old at the time of the first incident, I have a really vivid memory of inhaling a mouthful of water, and suddenly realising that I couldn’t breath, and then being overcome by sheer panic. Luckily a family friend had spotted me and quickly waded in to pull me to the surface. I’m not sure that I had any understanding at all of my own mortality at the time, but I certainly grasped what it meant to not be able to breath and what it was to nearly drown. Those early memories of nearly drowning as a child seeped back into my mind again, like hooded dark acquaintances, as I was being swept out of control by raging current down at 18 metres in the pitch black depths of the ocean last night here in Cozumel.
Last night Siobhan and I took the short boat trip from Cozumel to the dive site known as ‘La Francesca’. The dive site is known as a relatively shallow one, with usually only a reasonably gentle current. However, we had already dived the site the same afternoon and the current seemed quite strong, so we were expecting the conditions to be about the same, which we judged to be manageable. Both of us had only completed two previous night dives, both in totally calm and relaxed waters, one of them being no deeper than seven metres. But we felt prepared and ready for what would be our third night dive, and were looking forward to seeing octopus, nurse sharks and eagle rays out hunting. However, the conditions had changed from the afternoon, and as we jumped from the boat and quickly descended with the four members of of our group and our divemaster we were suddenly aware of how strong the current had become. As our divemaster descended he immediately headed, against the current, towards a protected space behind an outcropping of reef, signalling with his torch that we should also do this. As I descended and tried to follow him I found swimming against such strong current really very tough. By the time I had reached the point where he was we realised that it did not in fact offer any such protection from the current and I was swept away. In the pitch blackness illuminated only by seven torch beams I had lost sight of Siobhan, and I felt I was unable to hold myself together with the other members of the group. Two minutes into the dive and I was already heavily out of breath and heaving on my regulator, so I first tried to grip my fingers into the sand on the bottom and try and stop, but the current was too strong and I was slipping in the sand and was then swept further away. I then tried to find something larger to hold on to, like a piece of rock, but I was going so fast at this point that I just couldn’t find anything to get any purchase on. So, despite being near to hyperventilation I decided to turn and try to swim against the current in order to allow the others to catch up. This in fact worked, and the others came closer and then passed by me, so I moved around and rapidly drifted with the current, but by this point I was very breathless and quite disorientated. I couldn’t identify the divemaster or Siobhan. This pattern was repeated for several minutes. I would occasionally glimpse Siobhan, and could see that she was also struggling with the current and was trying to find something to hold onto. Several times, through no fault of their own, the other divers would clatter into me, some quite heavily, further disorientating me. At other times I was pulled some distance from the other divers who were quite dispersed. After a few minutes I checked my depth gauge and saw we were at 18 metres. I then checked my air gauge and saw that in just a few minutes I had already consumed almost half of my air supply. This is the point at which my head began to go wrong. I realised that my strategy for coping with the dive was not working, that I was becoming increasingly out of breath, severely fatigued, disorientated and now was faced with the prospect of running out of air in only a few more minutes. I remember saying to myself that I should end the dive now, that I should try to find the divemaster and signal to him with my torch that something was wrong and that I needed to go to the surface. But I decided to try and continue, fighting against the current in the dark, and try to orientate myself and get the dive back ‘on track’. At this point I still thought, OK, in a minute the dive will be back on track and everything will be OK. But this didn’t work. I only succeeded in becoming more and more, exhausted, anxious and disorientated. At this point I reached the threshold of panic, and then I knew that it was all going very wrong and it was now very serious.
At this point those old childhood memories suddenly surfaced, and all I could think about was that this was it, I was going to die down here. I was going to drown. I tried to fight this panic, and to think calmly. I had received enough excellent training to know that the very worst thing to do is to panic and lose control of your mind underwater. It is important to try and engage your mind methodically and systematically, and to try and stay calm. But, as I discovered last night, this is an astonishingly difficult thing to do when your mind is literally screaming – “you are going to die…you are going to drown…alone, here in the dark”. I knew that I had to end the dive quickly or something very very bad was going to happen right there. I desperately searched for the divemaster with my torch, and suddenly I could see him a few metres away. I wagged my torch beam in front of him furiously and then held my hand in the beam to signal that something was wrong. He immediately swam over to me and held onto me, and he could see straight away that I was on the verge of panic. I signalled to him that I needed to surface. My breath was completely out of control, and I could not seem to do anything to bring it back. All I wanted to do was go to the surface. At this point Siobhan was able to swim over, and together with the divemaster she held onto to me and kept me calm as he deployed the surface buoy. I moved ever so slightly away from the threshold of panic, and was able to bring my thoughts back under control to some degree, but I still wanted more than anything else to end the dive and come to the surface. My mind was replaying those old childhood memories of nearly drowning, and images of my daughter, and how I wouldn’t ever get to see her again. I found Siobhan’s arms around me immensely reassuring. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever felt more reassured in my entire life before than by her simple embrace at that moment.
Once the buoy was deployed Siobhan and I started to a make a slow ascent up the buoy line, in the raging current. As we ascended I will never forget looking down on the vast cavernous dark of the ocean, illuminated by just a few beams of light growing ever more distant. It seemed to take an age for us to reach the surface, but I knew it was imperative not to rush the ascent as I was not in any immediate danger. But the mind is a terrible thing. The whole time going up the line my mind was still telling me that I was going to die. Once on the surface I felt horribly shaken but elated. I was still alive, and the memories of my childhood experience of near-death receded.
My second near-death experience, an accident on the motorway which happened a few years ago, gave rise to a very weird experience, one that has haunted me ever since. The accident involved six cars, and about ten people in total. No one was killed, or even injured, despite the fact that it was an horrific pile up that spread wreckage for a hundred yards and closed the motorway. Afterwards, when the police and ambulance had arrived, all ten of us, including my daughter, lined up beside the motorway while they cleared away the wrecked vehicles, and I vividly remember looking at my daughter and the other people there and thinking, is that it, are we all in fact dead. Did we actually die out there on the motorway? What are we all waiting here for? It was a very uncanny experience. And it was the same last night. The experience of near-panic at 18 metres, apparently alone in the dark in raging current, was suddenly all over at the surface as we waited for the boat to come and pick us up, and I was left thinking, did I actually die down there. Is this it? Did I drown? I went back in the water again today here in Cozumel, and the conditions were beautiful. After the first dive of the day, I felt my confidence return, together with the knowledge that no, I didn’t drown last night. I’m still here, and I’m still diving. A little bit wiser perhaps, and certainly more experienced, having had a little insight into my own limits.
There has been some controversy, reported in the media during the last few days (see here and here), concerning Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic’s proposal for a new exhibition entitled “512 Hours” at the Serpentine Gallery later this month. The performance involves her doing “nothing”. Abramovic’s most famous recent work is her 2012 performance at MOMA, “The Artist is Present”, a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.
Part of its notoriety, in the popular media at least, stems from the fact that visitors to the performance included the popstar Lady Gaga. (Abramovic later stated that – “The public who normally don’t go to the museum, who don’t give a crap about performance art or don’t even know what it is, started coming because of Lady Gaga.”) In this performance the presence Continue reading
In 1937 the German physicist Gustav Kleist disappeared.
This film uses recently discovered archive recordings with his wife and photographs taken during his lifetime to tell his story.
“That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are…” ( David Foster Wallace, The Pale King)
The catalogue for Claire Morgan’s new exhibition in Cologne, The Slow Fire, is being published next week. This beautiful catalogue contains some stunning images of Claire’s most recent sculptures and drawings, together with my latest essay on her work entitled “A Vibrant Silence”. This essay has also been translated into French, German and Italian for the catalogue.
“The ceaseless flow of time and place that marks the life of all living beings is halted with an acute poetic minimalism. The stillness produces an almost impenetrable sense of mystery. Each sculpture choreographs a strange imaginary confrontation between animality and the artifice of culture. These weird meetings bring the wounding severance of humankind from nature back to the surface. The disastrous consequences of our ongoing sublimation and degradation of nature through religious dogma, ideological obsessions, and technological possession are repeatedly enacted through acts of collision.” (Darren Ambrose, “A Vibrant Silence”)
‘If you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.’ (John Gray, The Silence of Animals)
‘My work is related to my own processes of coming to terms with understanding our relations with animals and with my own feelings of discomfort at everything in life being impermanent. All of my work eventually leads back to ideas about life, death, and the human condition. We are never really secure in any way, yet we yearn for the security of permanence in our lives.’ (Claire Morgan)