The Act of Killing: a snuff film?

So let me be as upfront as I can. I dislike the aesthetic or moral premise of The Act of Killing. I find myself deeply opposed to the film. Getting killers to script and restage their murders for the benefit of a cinema or television audience seems a bad idea for a number of reasons. I find the scenes where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance. Of course murderers, flattered in their impunity, will behave vilely. Of course they will reliably supply enlightened folk with a degraded vision of humanity. But, sorry, I don't feel we want to be doing this. It feels wrong and it certainly looks wrong to me. Something has gone missing here. How badly do we want to hear from these people, after all? Wouldn't it be better if we were told something about the individuals whose lives they took?

I'd feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled "We Love Killing Jews". Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.

The film does not in any recognisable sense enhance our knowledge of the 1960s Indonesian killings, and its real merits – the curiosity when it comes to uncovering the Indonesian cult of anticommunism capable of masking atrocity, and the good and shocking scenes with characters from the Indonesian elite, still whitewashing the past – are obscured by tasteless devices. At the risk of being labelled a contemporary prude or dismissed as a stuffy upholder of middle-class taste, I feel that no one should be asked to sit through repeated demonstrations of the art of garrotting. Instead of an investigation, or indeed a genuine recreation, we've ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie.

So writes Nick Fraser in The Guardian.

I saw The Act of Killing at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago, and it was one of the most unique documentaries I've ever seen, especially given an environment in which the genre largely adheres to the same formula: some archival footage intercut with clips of talking heads serving as narration.

A key point in Fraser's essay is this:

In his bizarrely eulogistic piece defending The Act of Killing (of which he is an executive producer), Errol Morris, the documentary maker, compares the film to Hamlet's inspired use of theatre to reveal dirty deeds at the court of Denmark. But Hamlet doesn't really believe that theatrical gestures can stand in for reality. Nor, we must assume, did his creator.

This is the crux of this debate. What to make of this methodology of having these killers re-enact their deeds? It's worthwhile to me if it allows us to understand the mental mechanisms (defects, if you are an optimist and believe them to be missing in most people) that allow a person to so easily murder millions of people. I believe director Joshua Oppenheimer does succeed in revealing the danger at the intersection of power and narrative.

A key weakness in the human condition is our need for narrative, our ability to justify almost anything if we can frame it with the proper narrative. The choice of the killers in this documentary to frame their re-enactments in the popular genres like gangster movies reveals much of the narrative structure they themselves erected in their minds when they were carrying out the genocide.

Fraser argues he'd rather hear from the victims, but I suspect it's very difficult to find victims to interview when the killers are, as the movie makes clear, still walking about with impunity in Indonesia. As I recall, Oppenheimer, in his Q&A at TIFF, noted that he began with the aim of building the documentary around victims, but most were terrified to speak on the record. The result was a shift to focus on the killers, and what came out of that is one of the unique and terrifying documents of an example of the worst case scenarios in the social sciences.

As one of the killers profiled in the documentary says, “We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed—there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”