Although, I had the chance to watch The Act of Killing (2012) during a film festival in Budapest (“Ha Érteni Akarod a Világod”, 2013), I have to admit that I’ve been hesitating to write about it. I can’t figure it out if it was the overwhelming 115 min during which I kept repeating to myself “this can’t be real” or when I tried to make myself believe that in the end the filmmaker will intervene saying that the movie is just a macabre re-construction of imagined mass-killings attributed to some patients from a mental institution. And yes, he intervened in the end. I don’t know but this intervention kind of ‘crushed’ me and made me re-consider my experience of watching this movie.
That is why, besides finding it very disturbing in content and event, it left me with the impression of a multi-layered documentary, very powerful and complex in its text, so a bit overwhelming when attempting to read it. Additionally, I would say that it constitutes an excellent visual material that seems to incorporate all the concepts that we’ve been familiarized with during the entire course (reconstruction, fiction of reality, rhetoric of metaphor, observational cinema, direct cinema), so, that is why I finally decided to write my last entry for the Visual Anthropology course on this movie. But I will choose not to enter in the summative content but just to make some observations related to the power of camera’s positionality and its role, while taking as an illustration certain scenes that I consider representative.
Briefly, the movie, as the title suggests, is about the reenactment of the act of killing, so we are dealing from the beginning with the idea of a re-construction, which challenges a former Indonesian death squad not simply to remember their murders but to impersonate their victims in a horrid (re)play of killing. So, as in Jean Rouch’s cinema vérité, the play is developed by real persons – not actors, but I would go further and say that what makes the entire experience of watching really devastating is the fact that the role of the victim is played by the executioner itself. This means that the camera is more than participant and intervenient, catalyst or social observer, as it appears in Rouch’s vision. Oppenheimer’s camera becomes a tool of empowering this play of the murder’s corporeal image (McDougall, 2006)[i], namely the play with the layers of representation, of what is real and what is truth. In this regard, we witness scenes with fake decapitations or burking cheered by the so-called actors, who are enjoying themselves, for instance, in shocking acts of necrophagia while being dress up in horrifying drag, to the extent to which we can’t distinguish anymore between pure dementia, acting or reality. They all appear to be “surreal as well as hyperreal” (MacDougall, 2006, 155) by mimicking the indexical truth of their memories. In the same time, there are two scenes that I find memorable because, as the camera acts out, the reenactment seems so real that gives you the impression that you are facing a live murdering. One is when one of the killers’ victim is a random guy subjected to an interrogation while he is tied up of a chair and the killer plays so well his role of executioner that you get the feeling that the guy will be burked for real without any chance of intervention, as the camera acted out. So, when I watched that scene I truly asked myself why the filmmaker is not doing something to stop this atrocity, when I realized that maybe this is happening for real without any possibility of reverse action. The other reenacted scene, which I found the most powerful from my point of view, is the one in which the entire village is burned out for real. Keeping in mind that in both scenes the real executioners are playing their lifetime roles, what makes these scenes shockingly authentic and proves the „actors’ ” naturalness in their reaction is the burst into tears of their victims and their damaged state of mind. For example, in the burning-village scene, one of the actor-victims is the daughter of the murderer and she remains in a state of temporary shock because her father has played so well his role that she actually experienced the feeling of being on the point to be killed. He is proud of the reenactment but he is concerned that his crying daughter will embarrass him and will ruin the entire performance.
By acting out, the camera’s intention is not to blame the murderers or judge them, it does not prescribe a moralizing role, but is more concerned to understand objectively the fiction of reality and the killers’ mentality, so to say, the camera appears also in the position of a confessional tool having a revelatory mission. As in Rouch’s Chronique d’un ete, it appears that Oppenheimer uses the same angle of psychoanalysis, the subjectivity/confession standpoint but it makes it more intimate than Rouch by an interesting twist of real/fiction layers, creating the perfect atmosphere for confession: the killers are able to watch the footage, see themselves reenacting the killings, or acting/playing on a television screen, so they can judge their performance by relating it to reality through retrospection. What the audience receives is a beautiful superposition of frames (the frame of the frame): the past, the reenactment and the evaluation of the killer himself. The revelation in this film is represented by these psychoanalytic scenes, when the killers confirm openly their murders, as in the scene were they are invited in a TV show, but they aren’t able to go beyond the frame of the acting, as the camera empowers them to go further on a maniacal level. So, instead of taking responsibility for the murders, as the metaphor for revelation would imply, it becomes an outrageously morbid talent show, where the murderers reach, what we might call, reconciliation with their killings by performing the song “Born Free”: their rationalize their murders through this idea that they committed crime but sent those people to heaven and their victims should be thankful for this.
The most emblematic scene for camera as a confessional tool I find the one, when the murderer almost burst into tears while watching himself playing the victim and reenacting the moment of dying, and he says that he felt in that moment what his victim felt. This is one of the key moments in the movie because it is for the first time when the filmmaker breaks with the rule of absence and intervenes, in the end, responding to his subject that he couldn’t have felt what the victim felt because he knew that he plays the dying, meanwhile his victim knew that s/he was dying. If during the entire movie, Oppenheimer is not harsh with his subjects, he really gives them space and freedom to manifest themselves in their dementia, retrospection or (re)imagination of their self, he is not limiting their behavior in any way, as Rouch, he lets them react as they would do in real life. I think in this final scene, when he intervenes, he tries to suggest that the whole play of reenactment has a revelatory purpose for the actors themselves: they are not just playing murderers, but they are real murderers. Although, I don’t believe Oppenheimer is interested in a reaction from his audience, I tend to think that this intervention aims to remind the audience that the movie is about a re-construction of a real act of killing that if it’s unsuccessful acknowledged by its executioners, at least it has to be accounted by knowledgeable active viewers.
[i] MacDougall, D. 2006. Photo Hierarchicus: Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography. In MacDougall, D. The Corporeal Image: film, ethnography, and the senses. Pp. 147-175. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.