Empathy and The Act of Killing (2013)

By Sam Thompson

The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013. Runtime: 2 hours, 46 minutes

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing asks Indonesian war criminals to produce lavish movies, incorporating re-enactments of their roles in the torture and murder of ‘Communists’ and ethnic Chinese, as well as their nightmares and musical fantasies. Oppenheimer focuses on the experiences of Anwar Congo – self-proclaimed ‘gangster’; garrotting wire for hire during the massacres; and now a revered Indonesian patriot. The result is mesmeric, haunting – and a profound indictment of the empathetic power of the moving image. It stands alongside Shoah (1985), as edifying humanity’s willingness to understand through art events whose brute facts escape comprehension.

Literature is often touted as the artistic medium with the greatest moral power. It is a form that can augment our imagination; cultivate sensitivity to the minutiae of context and the possibility of similar, hypothetical situations. It is also cited as the most distilled engagement with our faculties of empathy. After all, empathy involves understanding and respecting another person’s subjectivity and literature is the purest expression of the subjectivity of consciousness. Thus, literature allows us to revel in another’s perspective and compels an empathetic response. A novel can externalise the internal, confirming our oft-doubted belief that the content of other minds are just as turbulent as our own. However, literature does not have a monopoly on these powers. Indeed, two of the most compelling virtues of Oppenheimer’s feature relate to its empathetic effects.

First, the audience experiences the criminals as more than the sum of their heinous crimes. This point must be addressed sensitively. Considering the level of pain inflicted, few viewers will be capable of identifying with the perpetrators or understanding their crimes. At one point, Congo and his cronies are interviewed on a national chat show, detailing murders with vitriolic candour. One of the producers asks in disbelief, ‘How many men is this man supposed to have killed?’. ‘Over a thousand’ is the response. The scale of this brutality is incomprehensible. One of the running discourses among the perpetrators is coming to terms with the Orwellian fiction that has been created about the past they helped to forge. They are little concerned with whether their victims were genuinely communist sympathisers (many weren’t) or if it was just an excuse to kill them. Their passions are directed exclusively towards the fairness of the Indonesian establishment’s portrayal of their victims. On the sets of their reconstructions, we witness tense debate on the subsequent depiction of the events of 1965-66, ending with Congo’s henchman imploring his listeners to accept that ‘we were the cruel ones – not the communists… we were more sadistic than them’. Like Oppenheimer’s subjects, the audience is easily persuaded of their sadism and cruelty, as well as their vanity and arrogance. So we leave the cinema with a conviction of the reprehensibility of these men and their actions. We may even have enough conviction to warrant a judgment. But cinema is not a rational discourse: we feel horror and delight in the dark; we make judgments in the light of day. So there are empathetic moments – fleeting, pre-reflective instants of connection with these ‘reprehensible’ men. Joyce described the rare feeling of ‘epiphany’ when reading a novel: an experience of the concrete reality of an object through its literary presentation. Likewise, we experience the concrete humanity of Congo through his visual presentation. The scenes which facilitate this are carefully and knowingly included: Congo, with tired melancholy, persuades his grandson to nurture (rather than torture) an injured baby duckling. ‘We must help him’, Congo says whilst holding the duckling tenderly in his hands. For once, we see a peaceful granddad as a granddad, rather than a mass-murderer. Congo wants only to instil in this boy more than the anger and violence that engulfed him as a teenager.

Oppenheimer’s second achievement is that he is able to use his footage to interrogate Anwar Congo’s conscience. Towards the end of the film, documentary becomes the catalyst for Congo’s guilt and his empathy towards his victims. This is a man who drowned any genuine psychological response to his actions in ‘dancing… alcohol… weed… ecstasy’. We’re told that few of the 1965 executioners survive: some were assassinated; others committed suicide. The remaining men live with poor mental health, suffering from anxiety and depression. There is little evidence for this in Congo. He appears carefree, settled into respectability. For most of the picture we see him with an old friend and accomplice from 65. The two adopt a comic dynamic for the camera, the chubby sidekick playing Hardy to Congo’s Stan Laurel. The sidekick is a racist bully but also the source of some much-needed light relief. With Congo’s support, he makes a farcically inept foray into politics, the depiction of which teeters between absurd and abhorrent. Early in the film, Congo recounts with pride how he changed his method of execution to make the clean-up easier. He stands in the yard where he killed hundreds of men dancing the Cha Cha Cha; his friend glibly comments ‘he is a happy man’. Later, Congo plays his own victim in a torture scene culminating in murder. He is uncomfortable throughout, perspiring and breathing heavily. Back at his house, Congo asks Oppenheimer to show him the day’s shoot. He watches solemnly. When it comes to the torture scene, Congo stares and turns to Oppenheimer: ‘they must have been so scared’. The empathetic response towards his victims, buried for years, is unearthed through the film he has created. The combination of perceiving the events abstracted onto a screen and seeing himself as the victim is sufficient to acknowledge the horror he has inflicted. For the final scene, we revisit the yard at night where Congo danced the Cha Cha Cha. This time, he circles the space telling himself and the world that he ‘killed many people here’. He stops, bends down and begins retching, a physical purging of the soul. This final image of Congo heaving, bent-double scars the audience’s mind; similarly, the idea of film as a vehicle for self-knowledge is given immovable force.

This formal invention goes even further. Oppenheimer exploits the conflicting elements in the processes of film making and watching. The reconstructions of massacres and torture are at once the closest representation of that reality and a scrupulously engineered artifice. As such, the final product achieves what a traditional historical text falls short of: it illuminates the content of the past and the prejudices of presentation that accompany such an illumination. This level of reflexivity eludes written accounts of history, whether they aspire to scholarship or autobiography. Sentences are there on the page; the painstaking generation of these sentences is absent – that is a private mental process. The Act of Killing exhibits a transparency that escapes conventional history. Congo is asked to re-enact the sacking of a village. We see sets built; make-up applied; and debate on how to direct the extras in order to elicit authenticity. Then Oppenheimer cuts to the finished product: hand-held, cinema-verité style footage, successfully capturing the horror and mayhem. This is a primary source with no obvious motivation to distort the truth but it is not objectivity. It is a collective remembrance and a staged representation.

Oppenheimer’s purported aim was to make a ‘documentary of the imagination’. By putting subjectivity at the heart of the film, he has achieved just this. History and memory – and most importantly empathy – become prisms of two-way inspection, making both the world and ourselves luminous. As the director wished, both subject and viewer leave the experience with an expanded imagination.

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