Thursday, October 15, 2015

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

A truly amazing movie. In this film, director Joshua Oppenheimer goes to Indonesia and interviews some of the hatchet men during the 1965 slaughter of opponents of General Suharto. The hitmen are not hiding and are not embarrassed. Indeed, they are important and powerful elders, people who one does not cross. They associate among the elite of society and they are well-respected. Oppenheimer invites them to recreate their slaughter, however they see fit. This they do, to uncomfortable effect.

They try to re-create their killings in a manner in which they are the heroes, treating criminals with the cool dispatch of a Robert Mitchum or a Humphrey Bogart in a film noir. They create dark, smoky interrogation rooms in which they are the reluctant but willing authorities. They have so distanced themselves from their acts that one wonders at their mental acuity. The most prominent example of this is Adi Zukary. He is perhaps the most disturbing character in that his life seems utterly normal now. He has a wife and a kid and we see them living a most dull suburban life. They go to the mall, his wife does some shopping. He drives a car and they are concerned about which cell phone to get. He is brutally honest about what he did, but he still cannot face the fact that the victims did not deserve their fate. He rationalizes their evil and fails to see the cynicism and lawlessness of which he was a crucial part. That he was and is able to live a somewhat normal life makes him a truly upsetting psychopath.

The other killer most prominently featured is Anwar Congo. He seems to have been tortured by the memories of his actions more than Zukary. Whatever steel trap of a mind Zukary has that allows him to detach from what he has done, Congo does not have. Congo has tried everything to stop the memories of the killings. Drugs, partying, and living the high-life give him temporary relief but not surprisingly do not pardon him. He is haunted by dreams and yet at the same time, like Zukary, cannot accept that what he did was unwarranted. Rationalization allows him to imagine that his victims were deserving of their fate. He doesn't recognize them as humans or people with families and that allows him to get up each day believing himself a decent person.

The fact that the US was so integral to Suharto's rebellion and the slaughter of a million people over that year should give people pause before they imagine their society morally superior. Not a word was said by numerous US administrations throughout Suharto's tenure as President. He resigned in 1998, passed away in 2008, and it was only earlier this year that his estate was ordered to repay $315 million, a pitiful fraction of the $15-35 billion that he is believed to have embezzled during his rule. The fact that he was able to rule for 30 years and retire in peace is a travesty, but it meshes with the fates of Zukary and Congo. The fact that they lived and continue to freely speaks to the failure of Western countries to promote human rights or the rule of law for governments which they find politically expedient. It also provides context for Zukary and Congo. They are evil, certainly, but what sort of evil tolerates governments where Zukary and Congo are important figures?

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