Surfacing Impunity


Emma Myers interviews Joshua Oppenheimer in Guernica:

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers to the sound of trumpets.” No one captures the problematic pretense of impunity better than Voltaire—except perhaps documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. The director’s new and profoundly disturbing film, The Act of Killing, opens with a direct nod to the philosopher, if only to one-up him. In an effort to expose the moral murkiness behind Indonesia’s 1965 and 1966 government sponsored purges, Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with a group of perpetrators whose attempts at self-glorification are enough to make a full brass band seem understated.

Documenting a fictive take on reality rather than reality per se, The Act of Killing unfolds in an unnerving aesthetic overlap between the surreal and the hyperreal. The subjects of the film, former members of the country’s vigilante military Pancasila Youth Party, go to theatrical extremes to reenact the atrocities they committed. In addition to recruiting women and children to act out large-scale massacres, the men stage interrogations, beatings, and executions, as well as costumed and almost hallucinogenic musical numbers in which dancers emerge from the mouth of a gargantuan metal fish.

Despite the overall effect of visceral and ethical nausea, moments of uncomfortable humor arise out of the disjunction between what we know about the subjects’ past and the way we see them behave in the present. When they drunkenly belt out Bob Dylan lyrics or stop filming because the call to prayer demands a moment of spiritual reverence, the viewer is forced into a state of cognitive dissonance. But as the Oppenheimer observes, the Manichean divide of good guys and bad guys can “only exist in movies.”