COLUMN: Sympathy For The Devil
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 22:09
Whether staring out from the newsstand or appearing beside outraged commentary on Twitter and Facebook feeds, it was the image that would simply not go away: that of a disheveled Dzhokhar Tsarnaev staring out dreamily at the American public. The story called “The Bomber” published in the August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone was beside the point—what enraged was the gall of the magazine’s editors in placing Tsarnaev’s image on the cover of an entertainment magazine. Countless celebrities, families of victims of the Boston bombing, and Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino joined in a condemnation of Rolling Stone for glamorizing evil—for turning a terrorist into a rock star.
Almost everyone was offended by the cover, yet the issue flew off the shelves in record numbers. It’s a strange phenomenon, the way our culture is both repulsed and attracted by evil—and it’s one I’ve been mulling over since this past Thursday, when I took a trip to the Brattle Theater to see The Act of Killing with my roommates. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time, but I’ve never seen one quite like The Act of Killing. Its director, Joshua Oppenheimer, calls it “a documentary of the imagination.” That’s a clever way of putting it, but it hardly does justice to everything that the movie attempts to accomplish. It’s a historical corrective, delving into a human rights atrocity that has gone all but ignored in the West. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, gripping and disturbing and defiantly its own thing. And it’s also a movie about the ways that a culture can glorify evil, turning a monster into a celebrity.
If you think that America’s culture is disturbingly focused on violence, The Act of Killing will remind you that it could be much, much worse. Oppenheimer’s film is set in Indonesia, a country where military-backed death squads killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in 1965. These killings targeted Communists, but they quickly became an excuse to eliminate any enemies of the regime. Nearly 50 years later, the executioners have never been punished—in fact, they are lionized as national heroes, and the political and military forces responsible are still in charge of the country.
Instead of dwelling on the historical details, as a lesser film would do, Oppenheimer gets to the story by looking at the present. The main subject of The Act of Killing is a man named Anwar Congo. He is a grandfather, a beloved member of his local community, and a jovial man who recounts youthful stories of hanging out at movie theaters and smoking weed with his buddies.
He is also a gangster who personally killed over 1,000 people in the purges.
We see this horrid reality through re-enactments. Oppenheimer asks Anwar and his comrade Adi Zulkadry to re-create the killings cinematically, in whatever way they desire. The mini-films these murderers devise, inspired by the Hollywood movies they profess to love, offer fascinating insights into their psyches. Anwar’s film looks like some deranged musical, with him as a high priest welcoming his victims into the afterlife. In another re-enactment, shot like a gangster movie, Anwar plays a Communist being interrogated and then strangled to death.
As the movie follows Anwar and Adi’s attempts to re-create their actions, Oppenheimer catches one disturbing moment after another. In one scene, Anwar halts the shooting of the murder re-enactment to do his daily prayer. In another, he shows off the spot where he killed his victims and then changes the subject suddenly, doing a cheerful dance on the execution site. Anwar is constantly ignoring, deflecting, or repressing his memories. It eventually becomes clear that he is tormented by nightmares of his actions, but he has been conditioned by his society not to feel remorse.
It may sound like The Act of Killing, just like the Rolling Stone cover, does glamorize evil: why should we hand killers cameras and encourage them to tell their stories? But Oppenheimer’s technique isn’t about validating the murderers or making us feel better about them. Whereas Rolling Stone lets everyone off easy by depicting Tsarnaev as a poor lost soul gone wrong, The Act of Killing forces its subject—and its audience—to face up to harder truths.
In the movie’s crucial moment, Anwar watches a scene where he plays a Communist being strangled to death. He recounts the terror he felt when shooting the scene, the total loss of dignity he experienced in those moments. He asks Oppenheimer, behind the camera, if his victims felt the same way. The director’s response is blunt: no, they felt incomparably worse—for them it was not a movie but real life, and they died.
In that moment, the totality of Anwar’s evil registers on his face, he tears up, and his facade breaks down. “But I feel it, Joshua,” he insists, and we believe him. In a movie that creates sympathy for the devil, we finally see the devil feel sympathy for the dead.