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Artistic Director's Blog
The Act of Killing

Artistic Director's Blog
The Act of Killing

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A photograph can steal the soul
(Native Indian saying)

Some years ago filmmaker Garin Nugroho recounted the tragedy prompted by General Suharto’s repressive measures and suffered by the Indonesian people in 1965 and 1966. For his film, A Poet, he opted to tell the story from the perspective of a survivor, whose account of a claustrophobic experience becomes a metaphor for a conditioned state of existence. This choice resulted in a film resonant with a consistent and coherent argument and well defined ethical parameters: a film in which the filmmaker’s position was clearly and unambiguously established. Dealing with the same events (so vital to an understanding of the lacerated identity of a multi-ethnic society) The Act of Killing chooses a different standpoint, in what is arguably a more hazardous strategy. The film’s protagonists are in fact two of the most ferocious perpetrators of the murders who have remained unpunished from that time to this. The film’s directors asked Anwar Congo and his younger colleague, Herman Koto, to recreate some of their murders, thus creating a blend of reality with that of their subjects’ imaginations (strongly influenced by the popular cinema of the 1960s).

Playing with adherence and distance, the grotesquery inherent in the dramatisation and the paradox of a society that celebrates its assassins, The Act of Killing seeks to answer one of the thorniest issues in modern documentary cinema. That is: how to film a killer without ‘packaging’ its image, as horrendous as it is unfathomable. Is it possible to choose a killer as a documentary subject without thereby making an “anti-”film? This is a dilemma filmmakers such as Werner Herzog (in his series on death row inmates) and Errol Morris (in Mr Death) have confronted – and it is no coincidence that both are involved here as the film’s executive producers. But The Act of Killing goes beyond the portrayal of two disturbed and disturbing figures. Joshua Oppenheimer and his co-directors (Christine Cynn and another who chose to remain anonymous) avail themselves of the imaginations of Anwar Kongo and Herman Koto to attack an entire society. A society that seems to not only have assimilated that era’s brutality, but legitimised the presence of paramilitary armies to the extent of making them a pillar of the status quo. There is one recurrent phrase that becomes almost a mantra over the course of the film: gangsters are free men, free to take action in ways unavailable to the regular military. So they are free, but are also necessary to the State, which hence protects and indulges them.

Directing, and most often themselves enacting (since nobody else wanted to take their part) their own atrocities, Anwar Kongo and Herman Koto end up becoming the ludicrous puppets of a tragedy reduced to a soap-opera. The long version of the film – which screened, and won an award, at CPH DOX – highlights (beyond any reasonable doubt) how aware they are of their own status. Obliged to view his ‘dramatised’ self on screen and to realise that his self-representation – as an actor – is not himself, Anwar Kongo plunges into an abyss in which fiction and reality, the tragic and the grotesque, are one and the same. A film that is the very opposite of coherent and unequivocal, The Act of Killingrequires several viewings and disturbs the viewer far more that it reassures. The reciprocal influences between the fictional and the real, the gap that remains between reconstruction and memory, the phenomenon of ‘redoubling’ direct testimony and performance, are issues that are explored throughout the film, which will continue to resonate for a long time to come.

Carlo Chatrian
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