Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Documentary Animism: Material Politics and Sensory Ethics in the Act of Killing (2012)

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Documentary Animism: Material Politics and Sensory Ethics in the Act of Killing (2012)

Article excerpt

Ethics and the Difficulties of Documentary Activism

EARLY IN THE ACT OF KILLING, we meet Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, both in high spirits as they plan to make a film. Anwar tells Herman, "Whether this ends up on the big screen, or only on TV, it doesn't matter; . . . this is who we are, so in the future people will remember." We find variations on this sentiment in many documentaries: the participants want to tell their version of the truth. Of course, Anwar's opening affirmation is not straightforward. Anwar and Herman are two small-time gangsters living in Medan, and Anwar is complicit in Indonesia's murderous past-the horrific genocide of 1965-66. Today these killers lead comfortable lives while socializing with popular paramilitary organizations, media moguls, and high-ranking politicians. The Act of Killing documents a bizarre camaraderie of murderers and narrates their rise to fame, celebrity, and stardom as they work toward a cinematic autobiography.

Following a military coup in 1965, a new Indonesian government formed under President Suharto. The military hired out paramilitary death squads to cleanse the nation of dissenting factions, targeting the world's third-largest communist party (the PKI), the intellectual community, artists, and the ethnic Chinese minority. The film titles cautiously cite the number at one million disappeared, but authority figures within the diegesis testify on a state-television talk show and boast of 2.5 million deceased under the military regime's two-year transition to democracy. The contemporary Indonesian government is a development from the cultural and political foundations laid by the massacres. The state currently allows Anwar and fellow "premans," as they are colloquially known, to live freely and without punitive measures.

The word "preman" roughly translates into "gangster" and is an etymological derivative of the English phrase "free men." This libertarian freedom exists as an unchecked and approbated criminality, as the premans are softly endorsed by democratically elected politicians, often complicit in the illegal acts themselves. Benedict Anderson clarifies the half-authorized status of the premans as "a sort of half-hidden lefthand of the New Order Leviathan: uncivil servants" (281). The premans speak openly about their past crimes without fear of judicial or social consequence and show little regard for global attitudes toward genocide. In the film, they favorably compare their past deeds to those of Idi Amin and the Nazis, laugh at the tenets of the Geneva Convention, display flagrant misogyny, and brag about raping underage women.

Anwar and his gang of death squad associates have origins as the "movie theater gangsters" who made their first illicit marks by selling movie tickets to popular Hollywood cinema in the early 1960s-a practice banned by the then-influential PKI. Throughout Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary, these men testify that the embargo on Western cinema infringed on their business since Hollywood films were the most popular and greatest attraction for their customers. The killers insist that the PKI boycott of Hollywood movies engendered hatred for the people they subsequently murdered. This entanglement of murder, culture, and diaspora precipitates one of the more shocking claims advanced in the film: the premans contend that Western cinematic aesthetics helped guide their hands in the contracted assassination of Indonesia's communists and many others. Anwar and company are fluent in film history and venerate Hollywood. As Anwar lightly points out, watching a "happy film like an Elvis Presley musical" would allow him to "kill in a happy way." The cinephilia of Anwar and his friends inspired Oppenheimer to adopt an unusual documentary technique that defines The Act of Killing: the killers reanimate their memories and dreams of the murders by making an autobiographical film. The result of the killers' cinema is striking and surreal in its beautiful renditions of familiar narrative genres including Westerns, film noir, musicals, melodrama, and horror. …

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