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Irony, Cruelty, Evil (and a Wink) in The Act of Killing

Author(s): Bill Nichols

Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Winter 2013), pp. 25-29
Published by: University of California Press
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Bill Nichols

Here is a film

that confounds the mind. The Act of Killing

invites mass murderers, who act in service to the state, to
forge a mise-en-sc`ene that captures how they see themselves now and to reenact their past crimes in the heroic
mode in which they continue to fantasize them.
Normally, reenactments represent an interpretive gesture by the filmmaker, but that is one of many documentary conventions this remarkable film flouts. In this case,
the filmmaker enables his subjects to offer their interpretation of past events. Recognizing that what we witness is
a reenactment, we also recognize that it carries a retrospective interpretation, one a record of the original events
would have lacked. In this sense the reenactments do not
mean the same thing as what the events they represent
meant: they evidence the passage of time, the gaining, or
failure to gain, insight, and they do not carry the same
consequences. No one, for example, actually dies in the
reenacted scenes of the gangsters execution techniques.
Reenactments operate as a meta-commentary on a previous
state: they correspond to animal play in Batesons distinction between play and fighting, where the nips and growls
no longer signify what the bites and snarls for which they
stand would signify.1 Like a wink compared to a blink, or,
even better for complex communication, a parody of
a wink compared to a wink, irony arises when the viewer
recognizes the play of frames that shift meaning to a different level.2
Usually, documentaries embed reenactments as acknowledged reconstructions (fictional representations) of historical
but originally unfilmed events within a larger context of
nonfiction representation. But this need not be the case, as
The Act of Killing amply demonstrates in a befuddling, disturbing, and illuminating manner.

Film Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2, pps 2529, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic ISSN 1533-8630.
2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please
direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content
through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website, http:// DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2014.67.2.25

The aging but unrepentant gangstersalso known as

preman, an Indonesian term signaling a centuries-old marriage of state power and criminal methodsrecount their
past exploits frankly, demonstrate their grizzly methods
unabashedly, and reenact their actions enthusiastically
through the filter of Hollywood film genres (most notably,
western and gangster films).3 The reenactments take the
form of stylized typifications.4 Various scenes make it clear
that the government still honors and protects these men
and the paramilitary group, Pemuda Pancasila, to which
they belong and which remains active, allowing them to
speak with complete impunity and minimal remorse.5
Befuddlement arises when a clear distinction between fictional and documentary representation fails to materialize,
followed by our mind-boggling astonishment at the casual
embrace of the killers and their paramilitary cohort by the
current government. The concept of crimes against
humanitylet alone the principles of due process, trial
by jury, and habeas corpussimply does not exist.
The gangsters live inside fantasmatic representations of
their past and present state of mind, aided and abetted by
a complicit government and segments of the private sector,
which the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, documents, if
that is the right word for the depiction of a world that
seems so far removed from the frame within which most
viewers conceive of reality. Their self-image in the present
appears as fantasmatic as in their past, when they saw
themselves as cinematic heroes, eliminating bad guys
(alleged Communists, many of whom happened to be
Chinese-Indonesian). Is the entirety of their lives an
immense fantasmatic performance? Because Oppenheimer chooses not to clearly indicate where reenactment,
fantasy, and social reality diverge, the killers vision of
reality creates a deep disturbance in the viewer.
Oppenheimer intensifies a sense of what it feels like to
enter a world without a moral compass. Is the reenactment
of a village massacre indeed too savage, as a government
deputy minister, who helps orchestrate it, states; or is it
a prime example of the reason why the gangsters, and the

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A Sanyo monitor reframes Anwars restaging of his notorious killings in The Act of Killing.

government they serve, should be feared, as he then goes

on to claim, reversing his previous position? Is the scarcely
acknowledged but vividly intense distress caused to Pemuda Pancasila family members (women and children), who
act as the villages victims, of far greater import than these
concerns about and justifications for savagery, as Oppenheimers editing suggests when he holds his camera on
a woman who sits, barely breathing and clearly traumatized, with her worried child standing helplessly nearby as
the preman who reenacted the massacre ineffectually fan
her with their hands?
A present-tense, lavish musical number amid lush vegetation, with dancing women surrounding and venerating
the gangsters through choreographic movements as though
the latter were tropical deities, is clearly a fantasy concocted
by the killers, who stand nearby, regally posed against the
sky; but a TV talk show that praises their past exploits and
celebrates the film they are making (the one we see), and
Anwar Congos later return to a place of execution where he
stumbles and retches, as if unable to control his bodys
revulsion at what he did, are less clearly so. Oppenheimer
refuses to provide a clear frame within which to interpret
these representations of social (or is it psychic?) reality.
Is the TV talk show what Congo and his cronies imagine
such a show would be like, or did Oppenheimer document

an actual broadcast? We search for cues with which to

label what we see as one or the other. A graphic title
labels the segment as Indonesian National Television:
Special Dialogue, verification of the realness that
a viewer would seek, but that could be exactly what the
gangsters would want to see as a legitimating stamp of
authenticity for their fantasy, just as the following would
be: an audience composed entirely of Pemuda Pancasila
members; three severed, dummy heads on a table in front
of the shows hostess; her gushing, unqualified praise for
the death squad leaders ability to find a way to kill that
was, in her words, more humane and less sadistic; and
an interjection by a Pancasila leader, sitting in a bright
yellow jeep parked in the audience, who just happens to
hold a microphone before the camera finds him, that no
one seeks redress against the killers because we would
exterminate them. These potential winks, plus the fact
that the show is in English rather than Indonesian, as
most of the films scenes are, suggest that the show is
indeed the fantasmatic representation of the killers
desire. And yet, this is, in fact, untrue. It was, according
to Oppenheimers website for the film, a genuine broadcast.6 It is as if CIA interrogators boasted of their waterboarding and other enhanced techniques of torture on
American television, receiving nothing but unqualified

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The gangsters clearly concocted present-tense fantasy, complete with dancing women, in The Act of Killing.

praise from their adoring host, and unqualified support

from a studio audience of colleagues.
Anwar Congos return to the scene of the crime, where
earlier he had matter-of-factly demonstrated his technique
for garroting prisoners with minimal bleeding and maximal efficiency, but this time to retch wordlessly, can be
interpreted as the culmination of the doubts and nightmares he has referred to throughout the film. It can also
be interpreted as his idea of how a movie should end, with
the hero showing his vulnerable side and winning some
measure of sympathy from an incredulous audience. Prior
shots of Congo sleeping alone in bed, with no sign of his
family members; very slowly ascending a staircase at home
alone; claiming, after his own mock execution in a reenactment modeled on gangster movies, that he can feel what
his victims feltcombine to suggest that Congo has
enlisted Oppenheimer to construct his show of remorse,
that this entire emotional journey has really been merely
a matter of going through the cinematic motions. Oppenheimers offscreen comment when Congo claims he feels as
his victims must have feltreminding him that in his case
it is just a movie: he will not die, and his depth of empathy
may be, therefore, more limited that he imaginessuggests
that Congo is concocting a deluded, conveniently troubled
image for himself.

Again, however, on his website Oppenheimer states that

Congo felt genuine remorse.7 The mind simply boggles at
its inability to frame such comments and to interpret what
Congos claim of remorse signifies. What kind of message is
the message? The film withholds the unmistakable winks
that would allow us to sort social reality from psychic counterpart (fantasy). The killers reconstruct a past and live out
a present that glorifies their crimes. The many government
figures that turn up in the film make it clear that these men
continue to possess considerable value for the Indonesian
state. The political situation takes on the form of a fantasmatic nightmare of corruption and terror. Distinctions
among legal, illegal, and extralegal acts, as between psychic
fantasy and social reality, blur. The applicable film genres
might be the horror film and torture porn rather than the
western and gangster film, but that would require an ability
to see things from anothers standpoint, something these
men, like other sociopaths, cannot do.8
The protests and pleas of victims served not to induce
a flicker of hesitation or remorse, but acted as an incitement to further cruelty. Adi Zulkadry, one of the death
squad leaders, for example, talks boastfully of his vicious
murder of his girlfriends father, because he was Chinese,
and later gloats in the great pleasure he takes from raping
very young women partly because they plead and resist. By

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Adi looks less murderous in the company of his wife and daughter in The Act of Killing.

giving the gangsters such free reign and by depicting such

a depraved social structure, the film withholds the independent, non-ironic perspective we anticipate and desire so
that we may distinguish the honorable from the appalling,
the deluded from the sober, the fantasmatic from its surrounding social reality.
We therefore not only confront the embrace of evil as a
massive problem in The Act of Killing, we experience the
bafflement of distinguishing murderous, self-exonerating
fantasies and a corrupt, terrifying reality. Akin to Linda
Williamss body genres (pornography, horror, melodrama, and the like), The Act of Killing produces a visceral
affect: it confounds the mind and unnerves the body; it
throws our sense of certainty into question.9 If actions
and messages conjure truth through the codes and conventions they adopt (as most documentaries so ardently
do), then Oppenheimers film puts this fragile sleight of
hand on display and implicates the viewer in the perplexing consequences.
Another irony arises as well. Signifiers that do not signify
what the signifiers for which they stand would signify,
invoke but do not present the signifiers for which they
stand. These absent signifiersthe historical event replaced by a reenactment or the sober documentary replaced
by an ironic oneoccupy our minds but not the screen. We

know we are not seeing the original event or a straightforward documentary, just as we know that a parody of a wink
differs from an actual wink, but this understanding depends on an awareness of what is absent but nonetheless
alluded to. In other words, the absent documentary invoked
by the ironic documentary enjoys a psychic reality that depends on what the spectator imagines or fantasizes it to be
a psychic reality partly based on previous experience and
partly invoked by the specific strategies a given filmmaker
utilizes. It is, in fact, not so much absent as missing: we hold
out an expectation of the absent films potential appearance,
which is quite different from merely noting something that
is not present.
In The Act of Killing, this missing documentary might
convey the moral probity, or sobriety, so characteristic of
documentary film and yet so utterly lacking in the perspective of the murderous gangsters. Voice-over commentary often generates a moral orientation to the reality
represented. In Alain Resnaiss Night and Fog (1955), Jean
Cayrols voice-over commentary provides a clear perspective on the Nazis heinous acts of genocide. The film carries great emotional impact but does not baffle us as The
Act of Killing does where no such voice appears. In Rithy
Panhs S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), a former inmate from the notorious S21 prison righteously but

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compassionately confronts a former guard from the same

prison. This mans clear sense of a profound injustice is
tempered by an absence of vengeance; it is his voice that
guides us toward a moral perspective of crimes against
humanity that haunt him and the entire Cambodian
nation. Finally, in Moi, un Noir (1958) Jean Rouch invites
a group of Nigerian friends to play out their own fantasies
as movie starsfrom Edward G. Robinson to Eddie Constantine, as they journey to Cote dIvoire in search of work.
The blurring of fantasy and reality, though, is greatly
attenuated, and interpreted, by Rouchs voice-over commentary, the very device Oppenheimer refuses to employ,
much to our initial distress.
Traces of a moral, contextualizing voice emerge in Oppenheimers introductory text, offscreen comments, and
occasional questions but are entirely absent from the gangsters remorseless reenactments. These traces emerge full
blown on the films website, where they provide the moral
and political orientation the film withholds. It is as if Oppenheimer knows full well what we want and need to know
but withholds it to thrust us into a more visceral, perturbed
state of reception. As with the television broadcast that
seems too utterly surreal to be real, the entire film presents
a reality that is too thoroughly unbelievable to be true. And
yet it is. We confront the paradoxical power of a double
bind: If you believe what you see and hear, you will understand the truth, but you can only understand the truth if you
dont believe what you see and hearat least not entirely.
Oppenheimers distinctive voice remains deeply but not
entirely submerged beneath the visions and voices of his
social actors. There is no clearly identifiable Alice to gasp
in amazement at this Indonesian Wonderland, no one, that
is, but the spectators who must journey through a topsyturvy landscape that redefines their grasp of historical
reality and the sense of self that it sustains.







1. Gregory Bateson, A Theory of Play and Fantasy, in his
Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago


Press, 2000). His formulation of the shift from one level of

logical typing to another (akin to winking vs. blinking) is as
follows: These actions in which we now engage do not
denote what those actions for which they stand would
denote[1] (italics his, p. 180). Play functions as an ironic form
of fighting.
In his discussion of animal play and its relation to art, irony,
and fantasy, Bateson draws on Gilbert Ryles discussion of the
wink as a fundamental form of irony. See Gilbert Ryle, The
Thinking of Thoughts: What is Le Penseur Doing? University Lectures, no. 18 (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan,
1968). Available online at
Vol14/Papers/ryle_1.html (accessed October 10, 2012).
See, for example, Benedict R. Anderson, ed., Violence and the
State in Suhartos Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 2009).
Bill Nichols, Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject, Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 7289,
on 8486. Typification and stylization are two of the possible
forms of reenactment discussed in this article.
Pancasila is a set of platitudesbelief in one God, national
unity, democracy achieved through unanimity, and so on
honored far more in the breach than in practice. Its greatest
ideological value occurs when it is used to label opponents of
the existing regime as un-Pancasilian, akin to un-American.
Such people and groups must consequently be eliminated due
to the dire threat they pose to the nation-state. The nature of
the threatCommunism in the case of Indonesiathen justifies paramilitary and extralegal actions to preserve the hegemonic order.
See Oppenheimer, Production Notes, at http://theactofkill (accessed December 1, 2013). Oppenheimer describes how the state television network learned
of his production and then arranged to produce the talk show
and broadcast it nationally. It became another iteration of the
narrative of terror and power that has supported the existing
regime since 1965. The only response to this was an invitation
for Anwar Congo to serve as president of the Indonesian
Actors Guild.
Oppenheimer, Production Notes.
Hannah Arendt, for example, describes Eichmann as someone who could never look at anything from the other fellows point of view. Eichmann in Jerusalem, New Yorker,
February 16, 1963, p. 100.
See Linda Williams, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and
Excess, Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (Summer, 1991): 213.


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