By Isaac Butler
"It was perplexing to know what to do when atrocity suddenly came up against irony."
-- Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
The Act of Killing belongs to one of a handful of movie going experiences in my life that are utterly singular, silencing experineces. The kinds of movies that feel unlike anything else you've ever seen, the kinds that make you feel rewired, and that there are new possibilities you didn't know were there. 2001, when i saw it at the Uptown in Washginton, D.C. in Middle School was like that. So was Do The Right Thing, which my friend Dave and I saw on VHS pan-and-scan when he spent the night at my house and then found ourselves completely incapable of speech for an hour afterwards. Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (the only one of these movies that's largely comic) did it to me a decade ago. And now The Act of Killing. Which I'd sum up, but the trailer actually does the film justice, so here we go. If you haven't heard of the movie, it's about genocide. So consider that your trigger warning:
The Act of Killing is so startling because it's so unstraightforward, so relenteless in its multilayered ironies, so refusing of the normal easy kinds of moral outrage and catharsis we expect from this kind of project. Instead, we follow a bumbling series of amateur filmmakers (who are also both celebrities in their country, self-professed gangsters and genocidaires) as they go about trying to make a movie that will explain and pay tribute to themselves for all the great murdering and raping they did in the 60's. The movie never sympathizes with them or excuses what they do. Instead it ties both its subjects and its viewers in knots.
The film would not be possible were it not for the fact that its subjects are all heroes in their country and able to act and speak about their pasts with complete impugnity. This-- along with their decisions about what will make for a good movie-- lend a constant sense of WTFness to the proceedings. This vertiginous sense of near-bafflement is deeply entwined with the gradual feeling of ethical unease that creeps over the proceedings. For while The Act of Killing is a deeply moral film, it's ethically dubious throughout, as co-director Joshua Oppenheimer either ennables or rides along with the gangsters as they go about their business. You cannot help but wonder who is looking out for the children who are asked to played victims of mass murder and cannot stop sobbing when the cameras stop running. Or feel a deep twinge of shame as the camera records Herman, one of the gangsters, brazenly shaking down Chinese store owners for protection money. Or feel that twinge deepen as the store owners desperately try to duck out of frame.
I write this not to condemn The Act of Killing. If it were made with more propriety it would be another in a long line of outrage/guilt generating documentaries that make up the half of the netflix queue most people add to feel better about themselves and then never watch. The story at its heart, and the remarkable access Oppenheimer et al get, is worth trudging into these murkier waters. And, frankly, The Act of Killing is on some level a movie about layers of complicity. A society that's complicit in a genocide. A country (that would be the United States) that enabled it. A social system that rewards the brutality of the gangsters and paramilitary forces. Documentarians who (until the final few scenes) grow complicit in order to get their story. Viewers who grow complicit in order to see it.
The other factor that makes The Act of Killing possible is something I call "character bleed." I did not invent this term, and I don't actually know where I heard it first. But "character bleed" is essentialy what happens during a rehearsal process when actors begin to take on the characteristics of their characters. Basically, in the overlapping of performer-self and character-self, both selves become unstable and overlap. In a way, useful manipulation of character bleed is the heart of the more old-fashioned method. When we use our memories to inform, or even summon, the emotional states of a character, we are turning ourself into a liminal space where actor, text, life, and character become muddled. We become a one-person version of the drift from Pacific Rim, trying to walk in sync with the person we are playing.
But even if you eschew sense-memory, character bleed happens all over the place. I directed a show once where a running gag was that two of the three characters were always at each other's throat. Two weeks into rehearsals, and the two actors whose characters were always in conflict got in two near-screaming matches outside of the rehearsal space over literally nothing. I remember one of the fights going something like this:
ACTOR A: What?
ACTOR B: What?!
ACTOR A: WHAT?!!
ACTOR B: WHAT?!??! NO SERIOUSLY WHAT?!?!?!
ACTOR A: WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?!
ACTOR B: I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?!
They were friends before the show. They're friends now. Ultimately, there was no harm done. But it was very odd for all involved at the time.
Character bleed is a fairly commonplace issue but it's especially common amongst actors without a lot of training or nonactors taking on a role. We all remember, after all, the high school show where the romantic leads became a couple even though they had nothing in common?
Character bleed is all over The Act of Killing. The gangsters are all playing characters. In fact, they're all playing three different characters at once. On one level, they're simply playing younger versions of themselves in the film-within-a-film. On a second level, they are playing other characters in the film including their victims. On a third level, they are playing themselves within the documentary about the making of the film-within-a-film. The gangsters are constantly clowning around for the camera and boasting of their "achievements." It's one of the ways that Oppenheimer and his crew manage to get so much revealing footage.
Amidst these three different performances, the gangsters' selves become unstable. One of them (an oaf named Herman) spends most of the film in drag, even when his scenes within the film don't call for it. The film's main subject, a wiry old timer named Anwars Congo who personally killed at least a thousand people by hand (his preferred method was garrotting) begins to slowly realize the horror he has inflicted on the world and, more importantly, by playing one of his victims, he begins to feel it. He even claims to have experienced the identical terror of his victims, to have somehow embodied their fear of death, without having really experienced it.
All of this happens as they try to make the film-within-a-film, a film that features troma-level makeup effects, faux-noir cinematography, wooden non-actors, surreal dream sequences, a musical number, dream sequences, and nearly unwatchable recreations of villages being massacred. Every time someone is about to yell "action" you cringe. And every time they shout "cut!" you sigh with relief, right up until the moment you remember that in the 60s, there were no camera, there was no film, and the people dying really died. Somehow, through the permeations in the self that acting brings, through dense thickets of irony, through a healthy sense of moral outrage coupled with complicity, both we and the film's subjects are able to get closer the crimes at the films heart, rather than feel distanced from them. It's this use of distance to cut to the bone that makes The Act of Killing such a remarkable achievement.