I recently had the good fortune to contemplate and enjoy The Act of Killing, the groundbreaking documentary from director Joshua Oppenheimer, when Drafthouse Films exhibited this work during a brief Austin run. The Act of Killing is a fascinating work of metaliterary documentary filmmaking that defies categorization; Oppenheimer’s vision blurs generic boundaries by requiring the film’s subjects to recall as well as reenact violent events from a traumatic past, all while the camera captures the protagonists’ own vacillations between memory and imagination, reality and fiction (trailer). This documentary sets out to further understand the politically motivated brutality that occurred nearly 50 years ago in Indonesia, steeped in the context of Cold War mentality, which claimed the lives of over a million (Communist) citizens. Characteristic of The Act of Killing is the constant temporal interplay of past with present; as Oppenheimer elaborates in interviews, many men we would/should view as villains, such as Anwar, who personally killed over a thousand political enemies, are currently celebrated as national heroes. Therefore, Oppenheimer decides to turn the camera on the assassin-heroes as they are the only ones who will speak openly, as well as joyfully, about Indonesia’s violent past. The director asks these men to discuss what happened in the 1960s at the height of the violence then to recreate their (hi)story in the style of the U.S. films that they so enjoyed and acclaimed. Anwar and his entourage act and direct in their version and thus have creative license to communicate their personal vision. The Act of Killing takes us through the process of making their film, reminding us constantly of the power politics involved in (re)interpreting the past. Towards the documentary’s conclusion, there is an overwhelming sense that the production of this film is truly the first time Anwar has ever really reflected on (t)his past and his role in Indonesia’s past.
So what would happen if we were able to apply this same methodology in Latin America, where the same Cold War ideology and its inherent violence, also claimed the lives of countless individuals? From the Southern Cone up through the isthmus and into the Caribbean, Latin America was a political battleground where political violence, while varying in degrees from country to country, terrorized the populace for decades. What would an honest graphic filmic representation look like coming from leaders of the AAA in Argentina, the Kaibiles in Guatemala, or Trujillo’s henchmen in the Dominican Republic? In 1995, Horacio Verbitsky published El Vuelo (in English Confessions Of An Argentine Dirty Warrior: A Firsthand Account Of Atrocity) detailing his interviews with Adolfo Scilingo, a former naval officer who had participated in the dictatorship’s systematic elimination of subversives. Verbitsky’s edited version of dialogues with Scilingo received a vast array of reactions both in Argentina and internationally. However Oppenheimer’s method in The Act of Killing allows for a more profound examination as it invites not only a recounting of the past, but also an intense recreation–visually and graphically reproducing that violence and the corresponding emotions.
How would the soldiers and generals that carried out the brutality against women and children as seen in Voces inocentes portray their role in the war? How would a filmic representation from the soldiers’ point of view be different from Rigoberta Menchu’s version of the same incident? What is the effect of such productions and representations on those who suffered the violence as well as those who perpetuated it? Would there be any sort of catharsis or coming to terms with the traumatic past for those who continue to be haunted by (or suppressing) their memories? How would it be received by the public? Would this be a further step towards reconciliation or would it provoke greater hostilities? How does the fictional element that Oppenheimer incorporates in his documentary enhance or detract from our understanding of these events?
The Act of Killing has obviously left me, like many others, with more questions than answers. The filmmakers, anticipating the unsettling and compelling nature of this project, open the film with a message encouraging the audience to remain in the theatre to discuss the film amongst themselves upon its conclusion. If you can catch it on the big screen in any of the cities where The Act of Killing is playing, it is a must-see.