The Act of Killing (A Study in Uncomfortable Laughter)
Josh Oppenheimer opens his film The Act of Killing with a personal message to the audience, briefly explaining the nature of the film and his motives. He also tells us that while watching the film it's "OK to laugh", and that Indonesian audiences actually laugh quite a bit while watching. He also tells us not to necessarily *enjoy* the film, because it's "not that kind of movie." I think there's an interesting (and possibly disturbing) amount of people in the theater I was in who actually did enjoy the film, but I'll get to that in a couple of minutes.
The Act of Killing is a documentary that mostly follows Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader of the 1965 genocide of over a million people in Indonesia. Back then, the militaristic thugs had singled out everyone who they opposed as "communists", ranging from political opposition to students to people who were just "ethnically Chinese." The thing that's different about a lot of other situations like this is that the regime that committed the genocide actually won the war, and are still in power. So the perpetrators of the mass killings not only were never held accountable, but are considered to be celebrities in Indonesia and spend a vast majority of the film openly boasting about their murders. Anwar himself has admitted to personally killing approximately 1000 people.
It's a surreal documentary on a lot of levels. Oppenheimer's task wasn't to be informative, he actually encouraged Anwar and his other killer buddies to reenact their murders in whatever way they saw fit, in order to make a cinematic portrayal of what was occurring in their heads. What we get then is a mix of horrible descriptions of the intricacies of murder and weird stuff like Anwar acting out his nightmares of the victims who now haunt his dreams. All of these (now elderly) killers are almost charming people; they have their quirks and their comical habits, and therein lies the oddest part of my viewing of the film...
I can't help but feel like after I saw the film, that the audience reaction was one of the things that stuck out in my head the most. I saw the film at 9:40 pm on Saturday in Chicago's famous Music Box theater. I had never been to this theater before, but it's basically a small arthouse theater, and its filled with hipsters and/or film school nerds. Just hanging out in the lobby instantly reminded me of walking through the hallways of film school. I guess the only purpose in telling you that is that the small (maybe 30 person) auditorium I was in wasn't filled with normal movie-goers, it was abundant with the kind of crowd you'd expect to see in an indie theater in the middle of a hip Chicago neighborhood.
I'd say there was a 70/30 mix of people who watched the film in complete silent horror vs people who borderline laughed at the movie like it was Anchorman or something. See, the thing about it is, Anwar is a kooky old guy. He has a lot of personality, and he's very outspoken about his opinion and feelings. And had he *not* been the murderer of 1000 people, he'd probably be a pretty funny dude. But the thing is, he murdered 1000 people. I think there were two groups of thought on Anwar in the audiences' head. 1) That he's a charming old guy, and despite his past, he's still an amusing film character. 2) He's one of the worst people alive, and his antics are not only unamusing, but his nonchalant attitude about killing innocent people is horrifying. I fell into group 2. And I'm a little confused as to why there was even a group 1.
I mean I understand the obvious silliness of the film. I recognize that the things happening in front of me are funny, in theory, in almost any other situation. Anwar has a best friend, a large fellow who was also there during the killings, and their relationship can best be described as the Indonesian version of Mike and Mark from American Movie. This tubby dude regularly dresses up in women's clothing for scenes of the film within the film, out of an Adam Sandler-esk sense of dumb comedy, and he does it frequently. Like, I get that it was supposed to be funny that this obese mass murderer dressed up like a woman, and I maybe smiled in the first scene (which was completely out of context) that this guy looked the way he did. But as the film progresses, you understand that the guy is a terrible human being, and his desire to constantly be the comic relief is more out of the fact that the man is insane, rather than him being a legitimately funny guy. Eventually, laughing when the fat guy in the dress shows up becomes more of a laughing "with him" than laughing "at him." How basic and simple is some of the crowds' sense of humor that they can laugh EVERY SINGLE TIME a chubby guy in a dress shows up on-screen? How can they possibly make it through this entire movie, and then STILL, in the second to last scene of the film, have the desire to laugh at the ridiculous of the fat guy in the dress? Do these people have the mentality of an 8-year-old? You just watched a two-hour documentary, which was basically a giant confession from these killers that they were cruel, sadistic people, only to laugh at their intended jokes at the end?
Think about it this way... Let's say someone interviewed a former Nazi who has fled to Argentina or something and he's now living his life as an old man, and he agreed to film a documentary about himself, because he has nothing to lose and no one is going to find his secret location. Now, this former Nazi is a charming old guy, he tells funny jokes, and he's a very quirky character. He also has no shame about telling stories about how he walked up to a Jewish mother and shot her in the face for no reason. In fact, he's willing to reenact it for us with a smile on his face. Then he tells us some stories about how he had to clean up the gas chambers at Auschwitz and it smelled bad, and he didn't want to get his pants dirty. So you're watching a documentary about a Nazi concentration camp guard who admits to personally killing hundreds of people, and the documentary is told in the most lighthearted way possible. Now, do you laugh at ANYTHING this guy says? He could tell the funniest joke in the world, and I'm still not laughing. I'd be repulsed by this guy. And I'm repulsed by Anwar. It's the exact same scenario. I don't understand how you'd laugh at Anwar's comedic presence, and not laugh at a Nazi acting the same way? Because it's the same thing, just a different historical catastrophe.
Let me throw this at you. At one point during the documentary, one of the ex-killers (now military leader) is describing how he used to rape every "communist" girl he came across. He said it was best when they were 14-years-old. He said, and this is an exact quote, "It'd be hell for them, but it'd be heaven for me." Then his buddies start tickling him and playfully pretending to squeeze his breasts, while saying "Hahaha get over here, communist b*tch" and everyone in the hut is laughing. THE DUDE SITTING BEHIND ME LAUGHED AS WELL. Really, man? Really? You're laughing at people reminiscing fondly on how they raped 14-year-olds? Do you have ANY kind of filter for your laughter? I mean, I was like hand-over-open-mouth gasping at the horror of this scene and how playful they were being about it. And you chuckled? Either he was the king of nervous laughter, or the guy sitting behind me is amazingly stupid and didn't understand the gravity what he was watching. But considering other people laughed at other highly uncomfortable moments, I can't help but think that because Oppenheimer gave people permission to laugh in his pre-film message, maybe they almost felt almost obliged to? Still, even with permission, I don't see how you can watch this film with full attention, and have much of a desire to laugh at anything.
Call me a sourpuss, call me a buzz kill, label me as overly serious in this situation... But I did NOT find this documentary to be funny. At all. I found Anwar to be a major d-bag, and one of the worst people I've ever come across watching. He told jokes and was quirky almost the entire film, and at no point did I ever even have the slightest urge to laugh at what he was doing. He's an ex-gangster who killed 1000 innocent people, and he feels almost no remorse. Even at the end, as he reenacts one of his murder scenes with him as the victim, he starts to become overcome with anxiety. He tells Oppenheimer that he now knows how it feels to be a victim, and he's sad that he did it to so many people. Anwar, just now, after 40 years of thought, realizes that what he did may have been wrong all of a sudden? Like, how dumb is this guy? He asks "I know how the victims felt now. Is this how they felt, Josh? I can feel it now..." Oppenheimer informs him that the real victims felt much worse, because they knew they were actually going to die, and Anwar knew he was just acting in a film. Then Anwar goes to the rooftop where he committed the most murders and sort of "recognizes" that he killed people in a rather insincere way (in my opinion). Then he tries to force himself to vomit, but nothing comes out, and it awkwardly emerges as an overdramatic dry heave. That scene felt like an act to me. Like Anwar was just acting for the cameras, as if to try to inform us that he's learned some kind of lesson. But he didn't. He couldn't have. He's been basking in the freedom of being an unpunished war criminal for almost five decades, and I'd be a little surprised if he has a sudden change of heart because of the events of this documentary. I hate Anwar. Anwar sucks.
I wonder if I would have had a completely different view on this film had I just watched it by myself in my apartment, as opposed to the Music Box crowd? Regardless, The Act of Killing is a rather groundbreaking documentary, and it's like nothing I've ever seen before. It's kind of haunting in a way, I'm still thinking about it. It's this terribly bizarre portrait of a country that I never plan on visiting, and their uncomfortable acceptance of mass murder as a positive note of their history. The film is less of a historical lesson, as it is a current reminder of what it possibly could have been like today if the Nazis had won the war. At least that's how I look at it. IT MAKES YOU THINK.
8.5 out of 10
I think it's an obvious empathy test. Do you think similar thinking went on regarding Sacha Baron Cohen's "Dictator" comedy? Parodying dictators has a long and noble history, Chaplin of course at the top. You fight these guys by making them ridiculous, but sometimes, like in The Dictator, it may be a case of "too soon", or "too close to on-the-nose", and people aren't sure how to take it. The branch of cringe humor typified by "The Office" is kind of like that, I think: you're not laughing at the inappropriate remark the guy made: you're laughing at the guy for being so stupid to believe in what he says and to to express it, you're laughing at the damage he's doing to himself, the Schadenfreude of it.
Only, when it's actors portraying these people, you have the extra distance mentally. When it is the actual murderer and not a parody of him, there is no comfortable mental distance.
Yeah, I get what you're saying. The Dictator would have been a good example of being able to ridicule a villain through their own actions, had The Dictator actually been funny. But by giving Anwar and his buddies so much freedom (maybe too much freedom?) in The Act of Killing, it kind of felt like they were in on the joke, and laughing at them actually turned into laughing with them. Which I wasn't that cool with.