- The Act of KillingFrom Fever Dream to the Dream-Work
"Is not the dream essentially an act of homage to the missed reality—the reality that can no longer produce itself except by repeating itself endlessly, in some never attained awakening."1
In the final scene of Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary film The Act of Killing (2012)2 we see Anwar Congo, the lead character in the film and a former henchman responsible for killing hundreds of so-called Communist dissidents in Indonesia in 1965, retching on the same rooftop where he long ago executed so many people. The famous documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had these words to say about this scene:
The last scene is one of the most powerful I have ever seen. And I am left with this strange question. It's a really deep question for me. Is it performance or is it real? And what does it actually mean about him or about us and about our connection with the past? It is powerful because it is so inherently strange and ambiguous. It's a "what the fuck is this moment"? What is actually going on here? I can't tell you that it's real or isn't real, it's fabricated or isn't fabricated, it's play acting or isn't play acting. I don't know. And I think for this reason, it becomes an amazing moment. Joshua Oppenheimer may be far more optimistic than I am, that we emerge somehow more knowledgeable, more self-aware. I think we learn nothing.3
In the same interview, done by Vice magazine, Werner Herzog comments on this final scene by saying that nothing like this has ever been [End Page 89] captured on film and that we will not see something like this for another fifty years.4 But it is not just this final scene that has elevated the film to the status of something like a cinematic event. Even without this final scene, we still need to ask why the film succeeds in holding so many of its viewers in a state of fascination, outrage, disbelief, and awe.
Before getting into these questions, let me first provide the set up. The Act of Killing is a documentary film that investigates the genocide of as many as two million alleged Communists, Chinese, and Trade Unionists in Indonesia in 1965–1966 that helped establish the New Order government of President Suharto. Peculiar to this film is the way Oppenheimer participates in and encourages its unfolding. Surprised by the boasting of the henchmen, and coupled with their avowed love of Hollywood gangster films, Oppenheimer asked whether they'd be willing to make their own movie of the killings. The result is the rather surreal cinematic effect of watching the actual henchmen, some forty years later, directing and re-enacting their own crimes. The effect is heightened by the many different layers of perspective that Oppenheimer captures and employs, especially when it comes to editing the many parts and frames into a whole. For example, the film jumps, often quickly, from the henchmen walking the streets and recruiting local townspeople for their film, to a modern industrialized shot of Medan, to a desolate and improvised shot of everyday life, to real-time interviews of the henchmen, to a re-enactment scene that replicates a film-noir gangster scene, to Anwar watching his own film and commenting on it, to a re-enactment of one of Anwar's own dreams, to a television show hosting the henchmen, celebrating their accomplishments, and so on. Absent is historical commentary by specialists working in related academic fields, as well as testimony from any of the victims (with the exception of one moment that I will discuss below).5 Also absent is the typical documentary technique of carefully arriving at some empirical insight via statistics, historical references, or competing narratives. To agree with a comment that Herzog made in the Vice interview, the film succeeds at creating a surrealist effect more so than any surrealist narrative film ever made for the precise reason that it is not necessarily trying to make such a film; it merely...