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The Act of Killing: How the Filmmaker Want Us to Feel About Congo and the Other Main Characters?

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The Act of Killing is truly unlike any other documentary film. A good thing in my opinion. One of the extraordinary things about documentary is that you get to continually reinvent the form, reinvent what it means to make a documentary—and Oppenheimer did just that. He identified several of the killers from 1965 and convinced them to make a movie about the killings. But the film is even weirder than that. Oppenheimer convinced these killers to act in a movie about the making of a movie about the killings. There would be re-enactments of the murders by the actual perpetrators. There would be singing, and there would be dancing. A perverted hall of mirrors.

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This kind of cause-and-effect narrative not only characterises the storytelling of classical Hollywood cinema, but is akin to the kind of history that for Benjamin belonged to the “homogeneous, empty time” of historicism. Continuing to work within this framework, Anwar’s film cannot sufficiently break free of dominant historical discourse to recognise the past the way Benjamin envisioned. For Benjamin, in order to think historically, continuity and narrative must be ruptured. As he describes in Thesis IX, the angel of history recognises the past not as a “chain of events”, but as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”. Through fragmentation and juxtaposition, Oppenheimer favours the “flash” over the “continuum” and presents the past as a “monad”, rather than as a “transition” that is lost in the expanse of historicism. He rejects established practices in historical documentary of assembling facts, testimonies, footage and/or real locations that aim to provide an understanding of the past “as it really was”. However, Oppenheimer includes scenes from Arsan and Aminah, as well as discussions amongst the gangsters about how their history should be represented, in order to draw attention to the contrived nature of historical narrative and its tendency to cover over histories that Benjamin would call “oppressed”. At one point, Anwar and his companions are preparing for a scene in which they will interrogate Anwar’s real-life neighbour who will play the Communist. On the set, Anwar’s neighbour asks if he can tell them a story which they may or may not wish to include in the film. The men are prepared to listen to the story because it is “true” and “everything that is in this film must be true”. Through nervous laughter, the neighbour explains how, as a boy, he had to bury his own stepfather who had been murdered by the death squads and dumped at the side of the road. At the end of the story it is unanimously agreed that this story cannot make it into the film because it would be “too complicated to shoot” – and besides, “everything’s already been planned”. In such scenes, The Act of Killing exposes the ambiguities inherent in any claim to represent Anwar’s vision of a “true” history.

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Inside Indonesia, the reactions have been varied; from hot debates in the nation’s top media outlets, to the occasional public statements by government officials (some supportive of looking into the past, others justifying the killings), to blatant disinterest. Although not officially banned in Indonesia, the film did not receive an official release and has therefore only been screened at underground and select public venues. In the media debates, there have been complaints that the film was made by foreigners (the film crew, including one of the co-directors, were mostly Indonesian nationals) and that, as such, it misinterprets or misrepresents this episode in Indonesian history. Personally, I would say that the history of The Act of Killing will be ongoing, at least for the next few years. I do not think that this film will fade away, either internationally or domestically in Indonesia. Once you see TAOK, it sticks too firmly in your mind. This, more than anything else the film may hope to achieve, will ensure that it will continue to be viewed, and passed on, in the years to come (Nick Fraser, 2014). At several points in the film, we see the blatant and casual sexual harassment and objectification of young women: examples include the dancing girls who should dance “more hot” out of the surreal giant fish and the leader of the Pancasila Youth, Yapto Surjosumarno, and his treatment of his golf caddy, a young woman who asks for his autograph, and his laughter at a joke about a girl who performs oral sex on numerous men because she “wants it.” (Saskia E. Wieringa, 2014)

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Finally, we still hope that the Indonesian government will finally acknowledge the 1965 genocide – and the present-day regime of fear built on it – as a moral catastrophe. We hope that the renewed attention to the film will encourage ordinary Indonesians to demand that their leaders be held accountable for their crimes. And we hope that it will inspire all Indonesians to work together for truth, justice, and reconciliation.

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Nick Fraser, “The Act of Killing: Don’t Give an Oscar to this Snuff Movie,” The Guardian, 23 February 2014

Saskia E. Wieringa, “Sexual Politics as a Justification for Mass Murder in The Act of Killing,” Critical Asian Studies 46, 1 (2014): 195-99.

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The Act of Killing: How the Filmmaker Want Us to Feel About Congo and the Other Main Characters?
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