Inspired by a Reddit AMA, I set out to watch The Act of Killing tonight. Its a documentary that follows Indonesian gangsters responsible for the death of millions of communist supporters in Indonesia from 1965 onward. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer allowed these men to film portrayals of the past, and through it we discover the people behind the atrocities. It was a dark experience.
Hearing aged men talk about torture, murder, and rape is gruesome. In one scene, an old gangster says this about raping a 14 year old girl: "I'd tell them this is going to be hell for you, but it'll be heaven for me." Another scene depicts a reenactment of a village slaughter, stunningly realistic, and you see the emotional toll it takes on the children and women in the scene, pure trauma. Watching this movie could make any person believe the worst beliefs of true human nature, but for me, it was just the opposite. What I discovered was the true light struggling in the dark.
This film is about power. The power these men yield over money, life, pain, etc leaves everyone around them in fear. There's a reason so many people involved with this film decided to remain anonymous in the credits. These people would take actions most of us would deem unfathomable, as we recognize the toll it would take on our souls. But even if the people who live around these monsters recognize the problem, they do nothing about it. Why put themselves in jeopardy when no one else will stand with them? That is tyranny, and it is hard to reverse. At one part in the movie, a guy who is part of the inner circle brings up a story from his past. He recounts how one day the death squad came to his house and took his Chinese stepfather outside, and he heard him cry for help before being murdered. You can see the pain in his face as he tries to keep a smile and talk about how him and his grandpa found the stepdad under a barrel, and how they had to bury him along the side of the street in a shallow grave, because no one would help them out of fear. You could see that there was this desire for his pain to be recognized, but at the same time he wanted to remain secure within the group so he failed to put himself out there. Instead he made a joke of it all.
Watching Anwar Congo talk about his crimes, you would hear pride. That is the story he's told himself. But in his face you see a different story that is fails to acknowledge. He continues to live in emotional turmoil over his actions. This to me shows the true human condition. As individuals, internally we have a potential for both good and bad. When we fail to recognize ourselves in others, empathy, we can do terrible things for our own benefit. But even those who live by this false truth, that they are an island in and of themselves, there is still an internal questioning of their actions. They don't admit it, because they don't have the internal courage to admit that they fell into a bad story about the world, that they were wrong, because their ego that is so self focused can't potentially jeopardize itself, it has nothing else to fall back on. But you see the true emotions come out in all the characters when given the opportunity to truly reflect without others around them supporting the story they've already told themselves. The lies they tell themselves are brought to life in the silliness that their portrayals take on. They refuse to acknowledge truth, and their sets, costumes and everything else reflects the true ridiculousness of the act they've lost themselves in.
This movie is great for many reasons. First, the fact that the film is made in a certain way to highlight the failed worldview of these men, and the fact that it has been received so well by a large crowd suggests that most people (proportionally) would sympathize with the victims and a empathetic worldview. It also shows that even monsters have the ability to feel (I won't spoil the final scene), even after committing so many crimes. If they can empathize, then what is the true root cause of their evil crimes? Is it an evil human nature? I think not. No, I think it's external influences that can lead individuals astray, an influence that promotes selfishness, disconnection, and fear. This is why societal institutions, systems, and culture are so important. We need to pay attention to the impact that the external has on the soul. We all have the capacity to feel happy and mad, good and evil, and all of us on some level have some mixture of both. But one side or the other can be strengthened by the groupthink that tells us what is okay and what isn't. We all have a chance to shape our culture by acting on what we believe in, how we want to be treated, and how we want the future to be. This is the light in the dark, and with courage we can build a burning fire of love together.