Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Act of Killing (documentary film review)

Documentary Film
"The Act of Killing" 
Rating: NR (adults only for graphic violence and mature themes)
Run time: 2 hours 3 minutes

The Act of Killing has a lesson for every earnest student of human nature.

I took a class in which we had to write a paper either supporting or refuting the validity of the death penalty. I argued against capital punishment. That was before I saw this documentary, which explores the systematic killing of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, between 1965 and 1966.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer paints the portraits of three cogs in an Indonesian war machine as they are during peace time (2012). Today, these three individuals, who systematically tortured and murdered so many of their fellow human beings, have mostly tamed their swagger... trying and (mostly) succeeding to live ordinary lives. One of the three is a career military man who experiences no apparent emotional problems about his (rather direct) role in the killings of 500,000 people. Another is a laid-back gangster who has a very sanguine attitude about everything, including the brutal treatment of these 500,000. And another has managed to survive by avoiding thinking about how his actions have affected others.

The latter two cover up any chance of guilt or hesitation in their cruel, violent acts with drugs and alcohol. The first man is completely unwilling to be introspective about the war and the acts performed in a time of war. He considers it to have been his duty, and he takes quite a bit of joy in his affluent lifestyle today, which is funded in part by his job in the war.

I'm still... mostly against capital punishment. Why? Well, with devastating specificity, The Act of Killing shows us scenes which demonstrate how war-time insanity can happen to any human being on the planet.

Some would argue that it isn't "in" certain types of people to behave in violent extremes, but I very wholeheartedly disagree. Bullying is a social act which bonds people. It's in us. I think that any of the people in The Act of Killing could've been decent people in peaceful times if they hadn't been exposed to poverty, greed, crime, and violence. Unfortunately, they didn't happen to be as fortunate as most of us are.

There's a kind of redemption in saying the terrible things we've done out loud, with as much honesty as we can muster. The scale on which this principle of redemption acts is epic in The Act of Killing.

There's a deeply confusing respect you feel towards the elderly ex-gangster by the end of it all. This man broke the shield of narcissism that had enabled him and all the men like him to kill in the first place. It's horrifyingly painful. No doubt, that's why the career military man refuses to introspect too deeply about it.

The Act of Killing demonstrates how it's necessary to objectify people and view them as somehow different  from yourself in order for hostility and cruelty to break out. The huge nightmare of 1965-1966 sprang from tiny, day-to-day, sloppy habits of thinking badly about people... taking shortcuts through prejudices... small, negative experiences poking holes in logic about why another human being is the way they are.

This documentary is a must-see, especially while we as a society continue to treat verbal abuse as casually as we do. How we think about others is a clear factor in violence and war.