‘The Act of Killing’ and the ethics of documentary film-making — Badrul Hisham Ismail

JULY 25 — Non-fiction or documentary film-making is a documentation of actuality to pursue two distinct and contradicting desires — desire for the truth, and spectacle.

Documentary film-makers often set out to capture “reality”, hoping to find something worthy of a story, and represent them to the audience to inform them of the subjects that he/she filmed, and at the same time entertain them.

Balancing these two elements is what normally raises a lot of ethical issues in documentary films, and “The Act of Killing” is not an exception to this.

Directed by London-based American film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” is about the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966. An estimated 500,000 to one million people were killed, which led to the elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a political force, which at the time was the third-largest Communist party in the world.

But the film is not actually about the massacre. The film focuses on Anwar Congo and his “preman” friends, alleged perpetrators of the killings in the North Sumatra region, who were challenged by the film-makers to re-enact their killings into a film of any genre they wish. So they write the script, and play themselves and their victims, to realise their own memories of their killings. That is the premise of this documentary.

However, “The Act of Killing” shows very little of the actual film that Anwar Congo and his friends set out to make. Instead, it mainly shows the “creative process” that Anwar Congo goes through in filming the re-enactments — discussing about the small details of their actions, their killing methods, influences, and what they feel about the killings.

In its synopsis, the film promises a “journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators”, and to expose a “regime that was founded on crimes against humanity.” But what resulted is a ridicule and degradation of Indonesian people, and we see almost nothing about the involvement of the people in power who ordered the massacre and those who benefited from them.

The issue that raises concern here is regarding the representation of the subjects of this film. A man with a very dark past, with the added value of being comfortable in front of the camera, and even more comfortable — perhaps unaware — in expressing diabolical thoughts and feelings.

Anwar Congo is a film-maker’s dream subject. A good film-maker would know that an interesting subject would make an interesting story, and like many other good film-makers, Oppenheimer did not miss the opportunity and succeeded in crafting a very interesting story.

As Anwar Congo and his friends talk about the filming and the crimes they committed, Oppenheimer lets his camera roll, recording the content of the conversation and in doing so, also captures their extraordinary personalities, creating an enthralling cinematic show to present to the audiences.

However, by only showing Anwar Congo’s side of the story, Oppenheimer risks misleading the audience on the true nature of the tragedy. In omitting the historical and political context of the massacre — besides a short text at the beginning of the film — and the heavy-handed role of the Indonesian military in it, Oppenheimer is not addressing the fact that Anwar Congo is just a pawn in a bigger political turmoil that was hitting the entire world.

The Indonesian killings of 1965-1966 were not just the work of a group of local “thugs.” It was ultimately a significant part of a proxy war within the Cold War era.

Oppenheimer scrutinises his subjects’ personalities and exposes them to the world through a very ethically questionable method which resulted in making a caricature of the subjects.

By enticing them to film their memories and imaginations of the killings in any way they want, Oppenheimer reveals to the audience Anwar Congo and his friends’ bizarre and tasteless fantasies for no real purpose.

In the excerpts of the film that Anwar Congo makes, one of the gangsters called Herman Koto repeatedly appears in drag or tight pink dress. These repetitive and extended scenes do not contribute to the overall arc of the story and thus are deemed gratuitous. This leads us to question Oppenheimer’s intention, and what are his views, perspectives and opinions of the subject of his documentary.

Film-making, either fiction or non-fiction, is a delicate matter of revealing things. And as much as a film is about the subject, it also reveals something about the person behind the camera. For example, the film “The Dark Knight Rises” not only tells us about Batman/Bruce Wayne, but it also indicates that the director Christopher Nolan is pro-police and pro-Wall Street.

“The Act of Killing”, on the other hand, rightfully highlights the roles of the perpetrators of the killings, but in doing so we become aware of Joshua Oppenheimer’s view of the Indonesian people.

His framing of the Indonesians in this documentary is no different from an Orientalist’s view, where Indonesians are just another savage, exotic and funny people who slaughter each other nonchalantly because they do not value human life.

But unlike “The Dark Knight Rises” or any other fictional films, this film (like many other documentaries) presents itself as the truth. This is the danger of non-fiction films. They present themselves as absolute truths, when they are only partially true, seen from the perspective of the film-makers.

And it is important for the audience to bear this in mind while watching any documentaries. It is also important for any film-maker to assess these ethical issues regarding the representation of their real-life subjects before pursuing to document them.

In spite of this, “The Act of Killing” is still an important film that should not be ignored. Even with all its shortcomings and the ethical issues that surround it, this is an astonishing film that pushes the boundaries of non-fiction film-making, and still serves its purpose in bringing awareness of the horrific and tragic event of Indonesia’s history.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.