The Dialectic of Truth and Fiction in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing by Milo Sweedler, Colman Hogan, and Marta Marín-Dòmine by Milo Sweedler, Colman Hogan, and Marta Marín-Dòmine - Read Online

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The Dialectic of Truth and Fiction in Joshua Oppenheimer’s

The Act of Killing


Milo Sweedler


Colman Hogan

Marta Marín-Dòmine

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The Act of Killing and Its Controversy

Colman Hogan and Marta Marín-Dòmine

The Dialectic of Truth and Fiction in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

Milo Sweedler


Author: Milo Sweedler

Respondents: Colman Hogan and Marta Marín-Dòmine


The Act of Killing and

Its Controversy

Colman Hogan and Marta Marín-Dòmine

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) – in Indonesian, Jagal ( Butchers) – is one of the most unusual documentary films ever made and the subject of much controversy. Filmed over a period of seven years in and around Indonesia’s third-largest city, Medan, it is at once the portrait of an aging Anwar Congo, one among the many executioners of the 1965–1966 massacres of alleged communists; a documentation of the ostensible film that Anwar and his associates are tasked with creating about their role in the massacres and its aftermath in their lives; and a portrait of the Medan paramilitary underworld in which Anwar has long played a leading role and which since the massacres has constituted the strong arm of both the Suharto New Order regime that perpetrated the genocide, and of its inheritors. The film is perhaps unique in putting the resources of cinema at the service of a group of perpetrators so that they may tell their story, champion their heroism and their legacy, and recount their fantasies.

The film has the feel of an A picture and weaves together a number of registers. We are shown documentary scenes of contemporary paramilitary mass rallies, paramilitary extortions of Chinese merchants, and intimidating requests for volunteers to act as communists in massacres to be staged by the paramilitaries for the cameras; studio sound-stage scenes of the making of re-enactments of torture and interrogation sessions from the genocide period; numerous on-the-fly contemporary interviews of the perpetrators/gangsters/paramilitaries and more formal interviews with their political enablers; epic and surreal fantasy scenes – in film noir, western and musical styles – concocted by the perpetrators to express their vision of the cosmos; and reception scenes, in which rushes of much of the above are re-viewed, particularly by Anwar Congo. The dramatic arc of the film focuses on Anwar, from his initial boasting of his impunity and his murders (as many as a thousand, by his account) through to his claim, after having viewed the rushes of himself playing the victim in an interrogation and torture re-enactment scene, that he feels what he imagines his victims felt. The film ends with Anwar seemingly (re-)traumatized by his recognition of his guilt, gagging and muttering, I know it was wrong, but I had to do it.

The film has received accolades from critics, won over sixty awards (including Berlin and BAFA), was nominated in the category of documentary to the 86th Academy Awards, and has figured in the top ten lists of Sight & Sound, The Guardian, L.A. Weekly, The Observer, Time, and Time Out London, among other publications. This extraordinary cinematic document is to our minds, however, remarkable for at least three reasons: first, the almost complete absence of the voices of the victims, survivors, and their families; second, the complete absence of the Indonesian military, orchestrators of the genocide who played a central role in the establishment and maintenance of Suharto’s New Order regime and who continue to play a central role in Indonesian society today; and, third, the almost complete absence of directorial intervention on the part of Oppenheimer. Given these absences, the film has not surprisingly also raised a number of controversies.

Principal among these is the sense that in the absence of the victims’ voices, giving a platform to the perpetrators seems a betrayal. Theodor Adorno expressed this outrage in an article first published in 1962: The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it ... they wound our shame before the victims.¹ To have the perpetrators legitimate and re-enact their crimes on camera courts a morally obscene jouissance of impunity, a re-perpetrating in re-presentation if you will, and may be seen as endorsing a sympathetic portrait of traumatized heroes. As Werner Herzog, one of the film’s producers, has claimed, You know, these men have escaped justice but they’ve not escaped punishment.²

A second set of critiques takes aim at the absence of the Indonesian military from the film, and the sense that