Getting away with murder…
THE ACT OF KILLING is an acclaimed new Indonesian documentary which is causing huge controversy. The film is an examination of what Holocaust academic Hannah Arendt once called “the banality of evil.”
As the Vietnam War raged, nearby Indonesia was on the front line of the Cold War, and in 1965, a failed Communist coup led to a right wing clampdown which saw the deaths of as much as a million people, which included much settling of scores and the deaths of not only suspected Communists but also much of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population, along with trade unionists and intellectuals. These killers today are the toast of society, venerated by the government and who openly boast about their heroic achievements.
The documentary makers gave these aging killers video camera cameras and challenged them to make films of what they had done. THE ACT OF KILLING shows them recreating their own killings with the help of actors and special effects, in order to see if they genuinely felt no remorse over their actions. Click this link to see the film’s Official Trailer
The central participant is a former paramilitary leader called Anwar Congo who boasts about murdering literally hundreds of Communists and despite claiming to feel no guilt and talking about how he loves dancing to music and drinking, he admits to suffering from nightmares which stop him from falling asleep. As the participants themselves start to recreate Anwar’s nightmares on film using actors and special effects, the action takes a surreal turn.
The film’s main characters joke about what they did (one even laughing about how he killed his girlfriend’s father and sank his body in a creek with the aid of a brick). As Anwar’s nightmares hint though, their bravado may hide remorse, a subject which develops as the film continues to its conclusion.
The acclaimed documentary has won awards all over the world, and is backed by well-known producers, like legendary German documentary maker Werner Herzog, who lives in the Hollywood Hills above LA. The film’s other famous producer (himself a Herzog acolyte), Errol Morris has written a recent article in Slate about the making of the film.
Empathy is the life blood of drama, and as Morris states, the film is really an exploration of evil — and a study in just how far one can push the audience in asking them to feel for these terrible characters.
Morris uses the scene from Hamlet where the main character tries to see if his uncle is guilty of the murder of his father by staging a play to see if he can catch his conscience. The film is about whether or not we can achieve Empathy with people whom we view as repulsive, while in turn the film-makers try and see if they can make the killers achieve Empathy themselves with their own victims.
Traditionally, audiences like sympathetic protagonists in drama if they are to easily achieve the Empathy necessary for their enjoyment of the story. Darker protagonists are more difficult for audiences to relate to and therefore reduce the possible audience exponentially, yet they often teach us uncomfortable truths about our own nature.
Writers and film makers have known this for many years of course, but science is catching up. Some specialists in evolutionary psychology have pointed out in the early 2000’s that empathy is the basis of all altruism; because if empathy is felt then people will often intervene in situations where it’s not directly to their benefit to do so, therefore it follows that if we can feel Empathy for killers we will be forced to face the uncomfortable truth is that they are really not all that different to you and me.