Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Self-Exculpatory Imaginings: Reenactment and Observation in the Act of Killing

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Self-Exculpatory Imaginings: Reenactment and Observation in the Act of Killing

Article excerpt

THE PERPETRATOR'S SCENARIO: AN OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY OF THE IMAGINATION

The initial waves of laudatory critical responses to The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) were invariably concerned with the meaning of the films novel approach to reenactment and the typically porous fiction/non-fiction divide in documentary filmmaking. After an extended period devoted to interviewing survivors and descendants of Indonesia's state-sponsored genocide of 1965-66, during which they also encountered the victims' disinclination to speak for fear of violent reprisal, the filmmakers turned their attention to a group of garrulous and animated perpetrators. As the film's opening titles explain, these veteran killers eventually agreed to reenact historical incidents of torture and murder for the filmmakers' cameras; the resulting images offer ornate simu- lations of classical Hollywood genres (the western, film noir, horror, the musical) and striking visualizations of the perpetrators' anxious private memories. These documentary reenactments, instances of what Bill Nichols calls "the fantasmatic,"1 appear to perform two related functions throughout The Act of Killing. On the one hand, a bizarre, В-level stylization becomes a substitute for-or perhaps a defense against-the perpetrators' conscious admission of wrongdoing and guilt. Oppenheimer sees evidence for the killers' "ethical disorientation"2 in these frequently strained efforts at stylization: generic models replace precise, truthful descriptions of the crimes in question and thereby allow the gangsters to circumvent responsibility. On the other hand, however, the staging of these lurid scenes appears to be a self-tormenting exercise for The Act of Killings central perpetrator, Anwar Congo. Within the film's implicit moral framework, reenactments paradoxically work to undermine this figure's confident evasions of accountability: he claims to be haunted by nightmares and periodically ponders the possibility of karmic retribution for his past deeds. If reenactments initially seem to let Anwar elude his criminality and real role in the historical genocide, his occasional articulation of ethical misgivings repositions these sequences as signs for the past's inescapable reanimation in present-day Indonesia.

The Act of Killings unusual approach to reenactment has been the catalyst for several salutary arguments about documentary ethics, the nature of filmic representation, and the value of audiovisual historiography. However, as Warren Crichlow has rightly noted, the film ultimately "predicates its moral insight on Anwar's losing battle to defend himself against the terrorizing truth"3 of his misdeeds. If the ostentatiously rendered reenactments have a certain role to play in this process, insight is nonetheless offered only once Anwar's involuntary somatic reduction is in sight, that is, on view for us during the film's final images of his prolonged retching and garbled contrition. In other words, Anwar's protracted paroxysms and penitence, seemingly observed with circumspect neutrality by Oppenheimer s camera throughout this extended sequence, are keys to The Act of Killing's purported moral demonstration. In the countless interviews that accompanied the film's initial theatrical release, Oppenheimer insists upon the immediacy of these perceptible truths when he describes The Act of Killing paradoxically as "an observational documentary of the imagination."4 It "works," he claims, like "an observational documentary,"5 as the product of a stylistic operation that tellingly involves the filmmaker's ability to simply "withhold judgment" on the observed.6 Like Errol Morris's "truth isn't guaranteed by style or expression" maxim,7 Oppenheimer s oftrepeated, succinct articulation of method here assumes the characteristics of a bold dictum (though it clearly forgoes the deeper aims of Morris's very different polemic); but its meaning remains strategically vague, and it thereby risks being little more than a filmmaker's private and practical working conception. …

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