Friday, January 17, 2014

Thoughts on Oscar Docs: The Act of Killing and Dirty Wars

The Act of Killing is an extraordinary film, and it’s even better when paired with fellow Oscar-nominated doc, Dirty Wars. (Links to the Oscar Docs here.) While the second film is a more typical doc in form and content, the two resonate powerfully. Though only one explicitly deals with the US-lead war on terror, both are about the stories we tell ourselves about what happens, how it happens, who does it, and why.

The Act of Killing bears Errol Morris’ and Werner Herzog’s names as executive producers, and I have no idea what direct roles they played in this film’s production, but it is obviously influenced by those filmmakers. The film takes reenactment to an entire new level, along the lines suggested by Herzog’s work even more than Morris’s. One of my favorite docs is Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which Herzog made and later adapted into the feature film Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale. In that doc, Herzog has Dieter Dengler reenact what it was like to be run through the jungle at the wrong end of an AK-47 after being shot down in Vietnam (things got worse from there). At one point, Dieter says something along the lines of “Okay, this is getting a little weird now.” I’m paraphrasing, but in that film you see how reenacting while incorporating the actual subjects into the dramatization isn’t just about making the past visible. It can be a transformative act for the subject, producing something new.

The Act of Killing is a large scale project of such reenactment, but it turns things on their head by having the perpetrators of violence doing the re-enacting. I apologize for the “head” comment, but there’s a lot of bad things going on with heads in this film. The key subject of the film, Anwar Congo, perpetrated many of those things in the sixties by garroting supposed “communists” in Indonesia (he only killed 1000, we are told again and again). But the movie is about how this reenacting, which he seems to think may exorcise what emerging reservations he has about those acts, ultimately puts him in the places (and heads) of those victims.

The filmmaker isn’t visible but we do hear his voice, and Anwar and others talk to him and discuss their decisions about representing themselves and what and how things happened. The Act of Killing is has an incredible premise. But what is extraordinary is how Anwar is slowly revealed to be coming apart, contrasted with how the many people around him seem to be what keeps him together and keeps him from reflecting or taking responsibility for his actions. One is left with the clear sense that it is important for the public at large that Anwar not have regrets.

Which gets us to the larger story the film tells, as if it needed to. The filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, does quite a balancing act when it comes to his film being about something that happened in Indonesia, and how it is made sense of in Indonesia, and the bigger story about the west and what role the US had in supporting the military regime that commissioned these killings. This is a story about governments that commission paramilitary groups, who commission gangsters, to do their dirty work. That callousness with which that work was done pales when seen in comparison with the revelation that it is still today (from what we see at least) still seen as justified and necessary. The paramilitary Pancasila Youth (who played the key intermediary role between the military government and the gangsters) are ever present in the film in striking black and orange uniforms. I found this had an odd effect of constantly marking them as exotic or other.

What goes unsaid is the extent to which their acts in the sixties were another proxy US/Soviet war. I actually was glad that that angle wasn’t pressed. The politics of this film are observational, even if its mode is more participatory and performative. As I said to start, this is a film that obviously resonates with activities going on all over the world. The Act of Killing examines what has happened in the past, and how those acts are processed by the people committing them. Those killings were committed up-close, and ultimately at least one of the killers can’t escape the space of those killings.

The officially sanctioned killing in Dirty Wars is supposed to be much more sanitized, committed surgically by drone or elite strike force. (Recent stories about drone pilots with PTSD would suggest otherwise.) The film is a more typical documentary approach, following Jeremy Scahill, a heroic journalist (I don’t mean that to be insulting, but that’s very much the mode—a brooding, eyes-cast-down turn on 60 minutes. Check out the poster. Uhg.) Cahill attempts to report the story on the ground of the effects of US drone strikes and attacks on terrorists and insurgents vs. the official versions and attempts to suppress such reports. Dirty Wars is, essentially, the updated report on how “acts of killing” of are now committed in the name of the war on terror. Appropriately, it focuses more on reportage, but the similarities between the mechanics of killing in both films are right on the surface. That is, war lords in Somalia play the same role as the gangsters and paramilitary in Indonesia. US policy is central. This isn’t someone else’s bad behavior.

The ideology that enabled the killing in 1960s Indonesia and continues to justify and obscure it today is central to the individual story told by and told of Anwar Congo. In a week when my university is celebrating officially being designated a center for “unmanned flight” research, this documentary is necessary context. There’s a line in Dirty Wars where a source describes the Joint Special Operatives Command (JSOC), having come to prominence and publicly celebrated after the successful killing of Bin Laden, as now being a “hammer looking for a nail to hit.” These two documentaries are powerful reminders that the stories we tell about what is happening in the world, what we are told by those in authority we need to do to change that world, and how we choose to imagine those things working out, are ever-present stories we can’t stop examining. 

Because, you know, it's not good to flail around with hammers.

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