Murderers and pillars of society aren’t usually ascribed to the same group of people, but on Monday 17th of November, the UCLU Film and Psychology societies screened Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing in which those who committed such atrocities are also lauded and celebrated. The event, which took place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, was followed by a question and answer session with a panel which included the director himself (via Skype).
The Act of Killing is a documentary film focusing on the killings of ‘communists’ in Indonesia by a government-sanctioned group called the Pancasila Youth. During the years of 1965 and 1966, more than 500,000 people were murdered. The film is made up of a series of interviews with the perpetrators of this genocide, focusing on Anwar Congo, a particularly charismatic murderer. The perpetrators spoke freely and utterly without remorse about how they killed their victims; through Oppenheimer’s encouragement perpetrators often re-enacted how they had killed people with great detail and no apparent discomfort. An important point to note is that the film focuses on the emotions of the current time and is not an attempt to understand why these men killed those people, as clarified by the director.
The atmosphere in the Bloomsbury Theatre was tense throughout the film with people often making noises of horror and disgust at some of the more brutal scenes in the film. Often people covered their eyes, unable to watch the events occurring in front of them. Despite a running time of nearly 3 hours, the film was so engaging that the end was greeted by shocked silence before the audience came back to their senses.
The film was followed by a discussion with the panel in the theatre and with Joshua Oppenheimer present via Skype. The panel was made up of social psychologist D. Richardson, clinical psychologist P. Scragg, and anthropologist A. Abramson. Oppenheimer was an excellent public speaker, despite having the flu, and really delved deeply into why he made the film, and his own personal recollections and feelings about the main character Anwar. The panellists in the theatre spoke of how they understood the actions of the men in the film, trying to rationalise it with each of their backgrounds. After seeing the atrocities committed by the men in the film, one may consider these men to be psychopaths, but Scragg disagreed based on the way they told their stories. Dr Richardson, on his part, explained that he couldn’t properly rationalise the events depicted using social psychology knowledge due to the fact most of psychological theories were accrued through studies based on western cultures, mainly around the time of World War Two. Thereby unexplainable by social psychology, the film provoked many questions and ideas for further research.
For me, the sign of a successful film is when it has changed my mood and The Act of Killing certainly achieved this. I found it captivating and fascinating although I will admit I couldn’t watch some scenes. The film was shocking for a number of reasons, first and foremost due to the way the perpetrators spoke and re-enacted their actions without any guilt or remorse but instead with something akin to pride. I really enjoyed the discussion at the end, particularly the comments by Oppenheimer which I wish there had been more time for. I feel the documentary itself was a little long, and a shorter cut would have allowed time for a more in-depth discussion among the panellists: in reality, the discussion was dominated by Oppenheimer. Regardless, the evening was a huge success and left the audience discussing the chilling events depicted on screen for hours to come.