The Act of Killing or, How to Turn a Documentary into a Buddy Movie

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I was not surprised when The Act of Killing did not win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. This is because, I believe, the film is a much better work of fiction than documentary.

On the one hand I want to remain sensitive to the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66, to the victims and victims’ families, to the recent discussions surrounding the killings, and to the apparently stable reign of the government responsible for them. On the other hand, Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make a documentary film about a few of perpetrators of these killings, thereby attempting to present a picture of the country’s past and present political situation. Yet, instead of a documentary feature, I saw a buddy movie, a film about two very close friends, often male, who have some kind of light-hearted adventure together. The characters in these films are similar in their interests but one takes on the role of leader, with all the accompanying positive and negative traits, and the other the role of sidekick, with all those necessary traits and gestures. Suggesting The Act of Killing is a buddy movie is also to say that it may not have been Oppenheimer’s intention to make a genre film so much as my reception of it; nevertheless, I’ve viewed the theatrical version three times and with each screening I see more and more of an effort on the part of the filmmakers to craft a simple narrative out of one of the most complicated issues in Indonesia’s history.

The story: individuals living in the aftermath of the mass murders in a period which the country’s citizens are changing their formerly positive views on the genocide. The plot: two buddies set out to make a fictional film in praise of the mass murders, the sidekick tries his own luck in the world independently of his Master, and the main protagonist undergoes an ethical transformation.

Anwar Congo and Herman Koto are buddies, this much is evident. Anwar, quite aged in this film, participated in the killing of perhaps one thousand persons in the mid 1960s. He is praised and feared by citizens and officials. His sidekick, Herman, is some years younger, a kind of bumbling idiot who mostly acts as Anwar’s support, other times his foil. Anwar has grandkids (perhaps a wife), Herman a wife and child, yet the two seem more interested in each other, their past exploits, and future adventures. The lack of women in the film emphasizes one of the central features of the buddy film, i.e., the fear of females by the expulsion of them from the narrative. Homosocial and homosexual subtexts are also central features of the genre. The cross-dressing Herman nearly snuggles with Anwar in a few scenes; he also idolizes and mimics his older friend.

But his role as a minor character is apparent in several interrelated scenes. In a small scene, Anwar bowls a strike and Herman rewards him with a massage. Herman attempts to bowl himself, nearly falling over in the process, tossing the ball into the gutter to the laughter of the audience, naturally. The younger is no match for the latter – much less attractive too: his belly protrudes from his shirts, his facial hair unkempt, his teeth rotten. His ugly appearance is all the more significant for his scenes in drag, which cause more laughter from the audience, naturally. Herman plays the fool so well.

In the multiple torture re-enactment scenes Herman dons elaborate dresses and, at one moment appears to be eating Anwar’s guts and, in another, decapitates an Anwar dummy. There is something quite amusing, then, at the sidekick pretending he is the more powerful person in the couple. Herman’s power is limited however, for instance, in Anwar’s mock torture and killing, when the older buddy loses his cool the sidekick must aid his Master by nursing him back to psychological stability – Herman takes on a rather paternal role in comforting his distressed friend.

Herman’s secondary status to Anwar is most importantly narrativized in his efforts to run for parliament, an effort that would perhaps free him from the role of sidekick. In this election campaign sequence we see his bumbling idiocy at its peak. Herman watches and listens to a speech by Barack Obama and mimics the President’s gestures and facial expressions, as if politics can be located in these moves alone. Herman’s family mocks his stupidity. As in all buddy movies the sidekick does not possess the charm and nonchalance of the lead character. Anwar, the former executioner, is cool, calm, speaks well. Herman, on the other hand, cannot even remember his simple lines for a drive-by political advertisement. He asks his cohorts several times, what do I say into the megaphone? Your name and political party, they quip. Without his buddy, the narrative shows us, Herman is nothing, inevitably failing in his election campaign. The audience laughs when the expected result of the campaign rings true.

The better developed and more identifiable character Anwar, in contrast, undergoes a transformation. He begins the film by glamorizing his former status as a movie-theatre gangster and killer. He shows us where the executions were performed, what clothes he donned, some old pictures, and introduces us to some of his fellow executioners who treat him with reverence. As the narrative unfolds, Anwar is increasingly faced with the consequences of his crimes: weaved in and out of the feature, Anwar informs us of his haunting dreams, culminating in a visit to a former execution site that recurs in his nightmares; Anwar, in conversation with a former executioner Adi, and in hearing his neighbour’s personal story about his step-father’s death at the hands of gangsters, appears to develop feelings of guilt and remorse; at the re-enactment of the massacre at Kampung Kolam, Anwar, almost in tears, observes how shocking the scene seemed; the penultimate scene now shows the protagonist in tears, telling us that he felt, during a mock-torture scene, what his victims must have felt; and finally, the narrative ends with Anwar’s emotional and physical breakdown atop the building where we were first introduced to his execution methods – Anwar stutters, tears, and wretches but does not appear to vomit.

Problem, buildup, climax, release/resolution. A fictionalized film could not have presented a better narrative arc. The key question, then, is whether this documentary feature was a work of fiction in terms of its organizational structure. If so, Nick Fraser is incorrect when arguing for The Act of Killing as some kind of glorified snuff film; it is better viewed as a work of fiction based on a real event and from the performances of real individuals.

In Oppenheimer’s film I see more of Ulrich Seidl’s fictional films than Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Further, where the direct cinema or actuality dramas of someone like Allan King intentionally discloses its attempts to entertain – King documented real individuals and then edited his films to present an elaborate drama to achieve some kind of essence, e.g., of married life in A Married Couple (1969) – Oppenheimer’s film tried to mask its processes and made deliberate attempts to highlight Anwar’s apparent transformation despite the obviousness of its chronological inaccuracy. What Oppenheimer wanted was a cause and effect logic; the horrifying scenes, built atop one another, would lead to Anwar’s emotional and physical discomfort. This is very disconcerting because a documentary work of this sort should not reflect such a high entertainment value and strong character identification; it should invite complicated readings for the situation and its history itself is very complicated.

The Act of Killing therefore plays out the same narrative thrust as Dallas Buyers Club (2013). In this latter film we are forced to clap – literally, characters clap for the protagonist at the end of the film – at a man’s transformation from homophobe to HIV/AIDS activist; all it took for Ron Woodroof to realize homosexuals are persons too was getting HIV/AIDS himself (but in his efforts to save himself he discovers homosexuals can be financially exploited for a cure). Likewise, Anwar transforms by undergoing mock torture himself, only to be rescued by his sidekick.

In the buddy movie, the characters must be sufficiently alike in order for the story to progress but must also ethically diverge for there to be strong identification with the more likeable character, which is then followed by a resolution where the two overcome their differences for the sake of friendship. In a sense, perhaps, Anwar and Herman find cinematic kin in Noah Baumbach’s recent indie-comedy-buddy movie Frances Ha (2012). James Quandt goes as far as nominating Anwar Congo as Best Actor of the Year and Herman Koto as Best Supporting Actor.

But mass murder, corruption, guilt, and international politics, are not as fixed as Oppenheimer presents. There is nothing complex or troubling about the story or events found in The Act of Killing unfortunately; it entertains rather than troubles and therefore attains the status of an unethical investigation and presentation of a real world event. The film should have been open to new and unexpected events, facts, psychological states, interpersonal relationships, familial relationships, communities, and political engagements. Instead the plot traces the familiar story, from troubled beginning to happy end.  

Oppenheimer’s film, given what I’ve said here, is less a documentary, or snuff film, than a buddy movie. The bumbling idiot tries to make it without his Master and fails; the Masters transforms from his old ways, which would cause a caesura in his friendship, an event we do not see but can easily imagine. All we needed from The Act of Killing, to fully achieve its narrative ends, was one more scene: of Anwar and Herman reuniting and either severing all ties, the former claiming a newfound ethical superiority while the latter maintains his corruption, or, watch Anwar deliver an Oscar-worthy speech about his crimes and wrongdoings followed by Herman’s immediate and mimetic transformation. With Mozart accompaniment the two friends embrace, burst into tears, and the screen fades to black. The End…?

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