A Problem for History
“It’s not a problem for us, it’s a problem for history.”
—Adi Zulkadry, in The Act of Killing
“We live in a country where, for the better part of the last decade, we’ve been condoning, even celebrating torture, and there’s currently, still, impunity for torture. And we know this.”
—Josh Oppenheimer, The Daily Show 13 August 2013
Two men sit in a riverside pavilion, fishing. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, renowned killers during Suharto’s military regime in Indonesia, consider what it might mean for the government to apologize for what they’ve done. “It would be like medicine,” says Zulkadry, “It would reduce the pain, forgiveness.” Congo doesn’t quite nod, acknowledging his friend’s thought experiment as such. And then he rejects it. “Wouldn’t they curse us secretly?” he asks, then skips over the political question to what is disturbing him presently. “When I strangled people with wire, I watched them die.” Now, he goes on, “When I’m falling asleep, it comes back to me.”
Birds chirp in the serene background, comprised primarily of bamboo and blue sky. The camera in Josh Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing cuts here from one man’s face to the other, the movement emulating their exchange of looks. “You feel haunted because your mind is weak,” opines Zulkadry, “Have you ever been to a neurologist?”
The conversation is absurd on its face, hardly legible as a sign of how the “gangsters”, as they like to call themselves, might actually think about what they’ve done or how they’re living with it now that they’re older and wider, their faces lined and their energies sapped. Still, it is one of the film’s more sober-seeming moments, and as such, it suggests a certain contemplation and, perhaps, confession. Trying to parse the scene, you rely on what you know, say, that such discussion, such self-reflection, carries moral weight. But at the same time, you can’t know that, quite, and it’s not long before you begin to wonder about more of what you know, that is, what you think you know.
The question of knowing is crucial and also unanswerable throughout The Act of Killing. Consider that the “act” of the title is various and shifting, referring at once to action that may be past, but also to the performance, as in, the staging or recreating of that past. Repeatedly in the film, Congo and other killers perform their killings, citing their fictional inspirations (Hollywood movies starring Al Pacino or Marlon Brando, not to mention John Wayne) and also recapturing—in bright sunshine or lurid red stage lighting—their personal memories, dressed in gangster or cowboy or pink dancing girl costumes, showing how they used a garrote or a blade to do their work. The men are inured, certainly, seemingly unself-conscious about how they might even pretend to indicate a moral or empathetic dimension in their act. But they’re also aware, that they are acting for cameras, that they will be seen, that they can shape their legacies.
“Whether this ends up on the big screen or it’s only on TV,” Congo says. He sits with another killer colleague, Herman Koto, following an especially harrowing reenactment, during which Koto picks woman and children to play “communists,” that is, the victims, and instructs them, “Cry! Weep! Keep crying!” As much as the camera pitches and reels during this scene, suggesting that the weeping women are reliving some horror of their own, it is utterly still as the two men talk over their acting in the film. “We have to show,” he adds, “That this is who we are. So in the future, people will remember.” Congo understands here, maybe, that history is not about facts, but about memory, and memory is a function of image and promotion. They smile, creepily, imagining their imminent stardom, which in their minds recuperates their previous stardom.
That killers are or could have been stars in Indonesia—or somewhere else, as Oppenheimer puts it, “We as viewers outside the country, outside of Indonesia, in fact we know we are much closer to perpetrators than we like to think.” You are closer because of what you know (that killing is a wrong act), but also because of what you choose to say you know, or how you justify your act in relation to what you know. If the reenactments in The Act of Killing are obvious efforts to detail and distance atrocities (Congo held the machete in this way, he avoided blood spill in that way, he watches recordings of his reenactment with his grandchildren), they are also embodied versions of his ongoing process of making sense, of living with… Himself? His memory? His story?
The act is a story. “I watched them die,” Congo phrases it, not, “I killed them.” The act assumes an audience as well as subjects and objects. It assumes logic and it assumes temporality. It can be past and recalled. It can be lost and imposed. This is how the act works, impressing meaning and context on those who absorb it and who are absorbed by it. “I walked over to him and cut his head off,” recalls Congo of one act. “His body had fallen down. On my way home, all I could think about was why didn’t I close his eyes? And that is the source of all my nightmares. I’m always gazed at by those eyes I didn’t close.” All he could think about was being seen, in the act and after it. Except that in being seen, he ensures there is never any after.