'The Act of Killing' and How Not to Get Conned by a Charming Madman

Danielle Mina Dadras

Using Joshua Oppenheimer’s belief in the healing power of performance, mass murderer Anwar Congo creates a masterpiece of guilt and repentance that his director buys hook, line and sinker.

The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Cast: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Syamsul Arifin, Haji Anif
Rated: NR
Studio: Drafthouse Films
Year: 2012

The world of fiction is full of charming, unredeemable madmen, from Milton’s Satan to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. And now, thanks to director Joshua Oppenheimer and his documentary, The Act of Killing, we can add another name to the list: Anwar Congo. An Indonesian death squad leader, personally responsible for executing hundreds (if not a thousand) alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and other “enemies” of President Suharto’s military regime, Anwar – like Paradise Lost’s Satan and Bret Easton Ellis’ Bateman – is a storyteller, soliciting empathy from his audience through bravura performances of accountability and regret. Which raises perhaps the most interesting question in cinema this year: Why can’t Oppenheimer (an obviously gifted, highly trained, and inventive director), or the audiences and critics heaping accolades onto The Act of Killing, see that they are being manipulated by a savvy killer? (See "In Indonesia, a Genocide Restaged for the Camera", by Bob Mondello,, 18 July 2013). Why can’t they see that they are, in a sense, accomplices – patsies, really – to a serial murderer’s version of truth, a madman’s attempt to con his audience (and director) and redeem himself in the eyes of history?

One answer is that the secret of Anwar’s success is his ability to tap into our – and Oppenheimer’s – desire for recognizable narratives of cinematic redemption; that is, films that validate our deeply held belief in the power of stories and their ability to illuminate, in this case, the entanglements of history, guilt, and truth in the horror-show of post-‘60s Indonesia. To guard against madmen like Anwar, and learn how not to be conned by his performance in The Act of Killing, we need only turn to the literary madman, and master in the art of narrative manipulation, that our Indonesian killer – somewhat eerily – resembles: Vladimir Nabokov’s unrepentant child-molester, Humbert-Humbert.

As anyone who has actually read Lolita knows, Nabokov’s novel is not really about pedophilia, but about the power of language to control and our capacity as readers to call bullshit and refuse to be charmed by a “murderer with a fancy prose style.” Speaking to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Humbert – part scholar, part sociopath – uses the language of law, psychoanalysis, and romantic literature to convince his reader of the morality of his relationship with the pre-teen, Lolita Haze. This act of re-telling his crimes, or so Humbert’s story goes, forces him to see the error of his ways, and professing great remorse, his testimony/confession culminates 300 pages later when even he refers to his sex with Lolita as “rape”.

But Humbert, in all things, is a proven liar. Far from an appealing narrative of redemption or therapeutic breakthrough, the point of Lolita is to try to resist Humbert’s seductions, to see through the dishonesty of his regret. Like Humbert, Nabokov -- ever the trickster – is playing with his audience. He’s using his anti-hero’s testimony to parody the ways that our blind faith in the authority of legal, medical, or literary language – and the stories that they christen as “authentic” or “true” – transform us into vulnerable, gullible dupes.

However, while Oppenheimer is no Nabokov, Anwar Congo is a Humbert Humbert. And therein lies the problem with The Act of Killing.

Oppenheimer’s documentary method, intended to reveal the ugly truths hiding under surreal performances of violence, is what makes his film so revolting and compelling, but it is also his Achilles’ heel. As the director explains in interviews – his appearance on The Daily Show with John Oliver is case in point – he made The Act of Killing after witnessing how perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide continue to boast and brag about their crimes, existing in a culture of total impunity. Hoping to make sense of the killers’ psychology and soiopathic behavior, Oppenheimer asks them to re-enact their crimes in whatever way they see fit. And so they do, rummaging through their knowledge of Hollywood cinema to provide the audience western, gangster, and musical adaptations of their bloody executions. In the process, they supply Oppenheimer with hours and hours of footage of the actor-killers rehearsing, debating, and executing their artistic (and homicidal) fantasies.

What Oppenheimer ostensibly finds, and what he is angling for, are scenes where the actors’ authentic emotions leak through the façade of their performance. The clearest example, one sure to be center stage in film studies classrooms, is Anwar’s emotional breakdown during a film noir adaptation of one of his executions. Assuming the role of his communist victim, and allowing himself to pantomime being strangled (by a wire-wielding and fedora-wearing version of his younger self), the serial-murderer buckles under the surrealist pressure of Oppenheimer’s process and has to “tap out” of the scene, completely overwhelmed by his own inhumanity.

While it’s easy to sympathize with an elderly man haunted by his past, and to celebrate Oppenheimer’s role as a sort of filmmaking psychoanalyst savant, the trouble is that Oppenheimer – and thus, The Act of Killing –is too committed to en vogue academic theories about the political power of performance to see how Anwar is using them against him and his viewers. In short, Oppenheimer is being “Humberted”: lied to and manipulated by a character who, having learned his master’s language, has now bested his creator. Because, truthfully, Oppenheimer’s language and intentions aren’t that hard to pick up on.

A Ph.D. – at least one Indonesian featured in The Act of Killing thought the documentary was Dr. Oppenheimer’s thesis- and author-editor of such academic, wonky-sounding titles as “Going Through the Motions and Becoming Other” and Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, Oppenheimer’s position on the role of performance and empathy in confronting traumatic histories is fairly clear (and would be familiar to any academic researching the role of healing in post-genocidal societies). (See "Actors may sue director of lauded film on PKI killings", Apriadi Gunawan and Triwik Kurniasari, The Jakarta Post, 15 September 2012) Because the body is a site of memory – think here of sense memory or phantom pain – performance has the potential to uncover traumatic repressions of the past and to create understanding between victims and perpetrators.

Anwar probably hasn’t read Oppenheimer’s oeuvre or sat in on a trauma theory class at University of Indonesia, but it’s a pretty good bet that in the hours of shooting The Act of Killing (more than 1,200 hours of interviews and footage of death squad re-enactments, shot over ten years), Oppenheimer’s ideas, if not writings, about violence, history, memory, and film may have come up once or twice.

Read in this light, Anwar’s moments of remorse and authentic humanity – such as his “breakdown” while performing the role of victim and his subsequent epiphany of empathy for the people he killed – start to look like very lucky coincidences. Or to my eyes, they start to look like Humbert Humbert, weaving a plausible narrative of his own redemption to woo psychologists and literary critics, who can, in turn, validate his delusional self-presentation. Using Oppenheimer’s belief in the healing power of performance, Anwar creates a masterpiece of guilt and repentance that his director buys hook, line and sinker. Unlike Nabokov, filling his pederast narrator’s mouth with seductive lies to manipulate his readers, Oppenheimer is both Anwar’s author (or editor, at least) and his willing dupe, the ideal audience for his continued self-evasion.

And Oppenheimer isn’t Anwar’s only victim. The killer’s best moves are saved for his fellow movie-lovers. While the erudite Humbert Humbert relies on a panoply of esoteric (and sometimes bogus) literary allusions (from Dante to Poe) to convince his audience of his moral rectitude, Anwar has another tool in his kit: his intimate knowledge of Hollywood movies and their narrative DNA. A “movie theater gangster” at the time of the Indonesian genocide – a “profession” for young men that consisted of hanging around cinemas, scalping tickets and hassling patrons – Anwar’s infatuation with film ran so deep that it inspired the method he used to kill his victims (he began to use a garrote after seeing it done in a mafia movie). Forty years later, his cinephilia influences his on-camera re-enactments for Oppenheimer.

Which leads to an obvious question: If Anwar emulated Hollywood cinema when executing his victims in order to find comfort, or at least numbness, in simplistic, self-serving clichés about cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, why wouldn’t he – for the audience and Oppenheimer’s benefit – continue to stage his life, and his regret, using Hollywood genre conventions? Why wouldn’t he, for example, decide to perform his (and The Act of Killing’s) most dramatic scene of humanity and remorse – dry heaving at the end of the movie while discussing the return of his violent memories – on the very same roof where he was first filmed by Oppenheimer, in Act I, dancing with glee and boasting about his crimes? Like any good filmmaker, Anwar knows that this narrative structure – emphasizing the transformation of the character and the resolution of a key moral conflict – provides the film with satisfying, Hollywood-esque closure, precisely the kind rarely found in real life.

Of course, Anwar can’t tell his story alone. And this brings us to what is strangest about Anwar’s nearly perfect cinematic narrative of guilt, denial, and repentance: He couldn’t do it without Oppenheimer playing along. Without Oppenheimer (painstakingly) arranging the scenes – the hundreds of hours of footage – and pulling the post-production strings, there would be no satisfying narrative arc for Anwar. (Imagine, for example, a director more skeptical of Anwar editing the two roof scenes and clips of the killer talking about his love of movies into one single sequence that calls attention to the possible cinematic source of the performances.) Indeed, there are many moments in The Act of Killing – and I’m not talking about the hack-y genre inspired re-enactments, but the between take scenes of a supposedly authentic Anwar – that are very clearly staged for cinematic, Hollywood-esque impact: Anwar humanized through interactions with baby ducks; Anwar, pensive, sitting on a dock in the moonlight; and most glaringly, Anwar, grief-stricken in the film’s final act, pausing on the stairs as he descends from retching on the rooftop. At the culmination of this pivotal scene, he is (just coincidentally – I’m sure) caught in a private moment of reflection by Oppenheimer’s camera, framed in a nearly perfect shot.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Anwar and Oppenheimer sat down over coffee and plotted the sequences that would best portray Anwar’s budding humanity. This was not a collaboration of equals. In fact, what The Act of Killing ultimately gives us is the story of an extraordinary man, a man capable of slaughter and charisma in equal measure, and a filmmaker, who, despite the best intentions, underestimates the self-interested savvy of his human subject and ends up out of his depth. In the end, despite The Act of Killing’s intricate methodological scaffolding – constructed by Oppenheimer to elicit the authentic unfolding of truth via re-enactment while maintaining the objectivity of the filmmaker – what we have is a documentary, above all, about the director’s, and the audience’s, loss of narrative control.

Of course narrative control for a fiction writer like Nabokov is easy (Humbert might be slippery, but he is firmly within Nabokov’s creative grasp at all times), while a non-fiction filmmaker like Oppenheimer has to contend with the real life duplicitous and complex characters that make a good story (and tell a good lie). Which is why the best documentarians, men like The Act of Killing’s executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, consistently keep their cameras trained on the revelation of truth while simultaneously exposing the difficulty of capturing it on film. See, for example, Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and – just for fun – Morris on truth and performance in The Act of Killing. (See also "The Murders of Gonzago", by Errol Morris, Slate, 10 July 2013)

Oppenheimer’s elaborate and innovative method indicates that he may have started his experiment in documentary with this lesson from the masters in mind, but – conned by a charming killer, transfixed by Anwar’s version of truth – The Act of Killing ultimately lacks the self-consciousness and skepticism that might have transformed Oppenheimer’s beautifully shot and terrifying footage into a truly unique and compelling meditation on history, art, trauma, memory, and truth. Still, he should be commended – loudly – for a documentary that is bringing worldwide attention to Indonesia’s culture of impunity and fear. If he had done it without making Anwar the self-serving star of The Act of Killing’s revisionist history, he could also be commended for creating a cinematic masterpiece.

Danielle Mina Dadras earned her Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature and Film from Ohio State University in 2008. She is the Coordinator of Curriculum and Advising for the University of Minnesota's Institute for Global Studies and teaches courses on art and globalization at Hamline University.

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