On the act of depicting mass murder

BEIRUT: Most movie-lovers watch fiction films, not documentaries. In part it’s because escaping our miserable lives (and the miserable lives of others) is preferable to learning that things are even worse than you thought. It’s not just that. Moving images wash over the brain more easily when thorny and sharp-edged ideas are filtered out. Like a slab of meat, a fiction can be trimmed of its chewy bits.

Documentary filmmakers face a two-fold challenge. First, they must dispassionately scrutinize and understand the complex human stories into which they burrow. More, they must make these stories comprehensible to audiences, whether they’ve undergone similar experiences or not.

“The Act of Killing,” by U.S. filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has set the current benchmark in documentary film, detailing a deeply local story that reverberates with us all.

Since its 2012 debut, this Danish-Norwegian co-production has been churning up audience debate and critical praise, earning more than 35 international prizes.

Those who missed the film’s Beirut debut last year – its lone projection screened to less than a dozen people – will have a second chance during Danish Feast, this week’s film cycle at Metropolis Cinema.

Oppenheimer’s is a challenging film with a long backstory.

“Killing” is set among a small group of men once employed to carry out mass murder.

Small-time thugs in the 1960s, these men live without fear of political retribution today: Their loose network of death squads has coalesced into a powerful paramilitary party whose leaders are part of the national political elite.

“Killing” was conceived while Oppenheimer was shooting his 2003 doc “The Globalization Tapes.” Set in Medan, the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, his subjects were survivors of Suharto’s 1966 coup against President Sukarno.

That coup was presaged by the general’s purge of the Indonesian Communist Party – and anyone the army declared communist – which left 500,000-1,000,000 people dead.

Hampering Oppenheimer’s fieldwork were the victims’ torturers and executioners, who control the local economy and security apparatus. Their harassment made it impossible for survivors to discuss the killings, intimidating both the Indonesian film crew and their subjects, who feared repercussions after the foreigners left.

Not only did the perpetrators trumpet their roles in the 1965-66 massacres, they were delighted to have Oppenheimer’s crew film them as they did.

“Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing,” the filmmaker recalls in the press book for “Killing,” “saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter ... Military officers would even task soldiers with keeping curious onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn’t be disturbed.”

Bizarre for the bald-faced impunity with which these men embraced their crimes against humanity, these encounters inspired Oppenheimer to make a small cluster of Sumatran mass murderers the center of “The Act of Killing.”

The title comes from the one non-murderous passion Oppenheimer’s subjects share. Before discovering mass murder, they’d made their living scalping cinema tickets. All are passionate fans of U.S.-made B-movies of the day, especially gangster and cowboy pictures.

Such was their love of American genre movies that, when called upon to commit patriotic mass murder, the perpetrators say they modeled their techniques on the ones in the films they admired.

Improvising on his subject’s passion, Oppenheimer agreed that he and his crew would assist them to make a film about their exploits in the 1960s.

“Killing” centers on two principal figures. Anwar Bongo, the main character, looks every inch the gentle senior citizen but he’s a local celebrity among Medan’s young thugs, because in 1965 he was a notorious death squad commander.

Just a boy in 1965, Bongo’s protégé Herman Koto has blossomed into an overweight paramilitary with political ambitions. He provides much of the film’s bizarre comedy, mostly because in their film-within-a-film, he always casts himself in drag, as Bongo’s moll.

Oppenheimer has remarked that, the longer he spent with Anwar Bongo and his pals, the more clear it became that they’d afforded him an opportunity to ask much larger questions, whose implications go well beyond the sordid behavior of Suharto’s North Sumatra death squads.

“Killing,” he notes, asks “what does it mean to live in, and be governed by, a regime whose power rests on the performance of mass murder and its boastful public recounting, even as it intimidates survivors into silence?”

The art of “Killing” lies in the unspoken awareness that mass murder is in the genealogy of all nation states, that in a sense we all share Anwar Bongo’s story.

But Oppenheimer’s depiction of mass murderers as gormless (even sympathetic) agents of amoral political opportunism provokes a more troubling question.

What is the effect of this “act of depiction?” Is humanizing Anwar Bongo too much like rationalizing his murders? The filmmaker doesn’t condone his subject’s past behavior, of course, but might some members of his audience find reason to do so?

“The Act of Killing” will screen at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Friday at 8 p.m. For more information ring 01 20 40 80 or see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 30, 2014, on page 16.




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