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The Act of Killing

This post was edited, re-worked, and eventually published on the InterVarsity blog

“The Act of Killing” is a documentary about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of “communists” (in reality, anyone who posed any threat at all to the regime taking power was labeled a communist and then killed) in Indonesia in the 1960s. Now I know, that sounds exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to watch after a long day of work, but stick with me for a bit.

The film focuses on two of the  death squad leaders, Anwar (who looks uncannily like Nelson Mandela) and Herman.  They are still considered heroes in Indonesia.  They live comfortably, even luxuriously, though they still think and act like the gangsters they were before their political appointments. In one bizarre scene, Herman goes about collecting his “protection” money from cowed local vendors, and doesn’t attempt to disguise what he’s doing as anything else.  They pay him, because if they don’t, he will hurt them.  That’s how things work in Indonesia, and these guys see no problem with that.  No problem at all.

They’re also film buffs, and when the filmmaker (Joshua Oppenheimer) invites them to recreate their acts of mass murder in familiar film genre styles, they jump at the chance. The results are trippy and bizarre and only vaguely resemble any film I’ve ever seen.

So yeah, these guys are bad, and they’re not sorry, and that’s horrifying for a while, but “The Act of Killing” grows repetitive as we watch scene after scene of them gleefully explaining different killing techniques and making weird, garish, over the top film scenes out of their crimes/achievements.  One guy, for some strange reason, is almost always in drag.  What started out as a compelling film grows tiresome, and then I start to wonder what the point of the film is — if maybe we’re ogling at evil people being evil, because it makes us feel good, because we’re not like them, and we can wonder how anyone can be like them.  There’s a satisfaction in being righteously indignant and comfortably horrified by someone else’s sins.

But then, just when I was about to check out of this film entirely, something interesting happens. During one of the film scenes, Anwar plays a victim, and it gets under his skin. He starts to understand the pain and anguish his victims must have felt in the final moments of their lives.  (As strange as it seems, he seems honestly never to have considered this before.)  And that understanding grows, until, in a harrowing scene where he returns to one of the sights of his slaughter, he is physically, violently sick while trying to talk about what he has done.  And that’s where “The Act of Killing” ends.

From where I sit, this is nothing less than the mysterious grace of God at work in this man’s life. Social psychologists have been telling us for a long time now that our capacity for empathy and compassion work like muscles – the more you use them, the bigger your capacity gets — but that’s not the way we think about them, and it’s hard to make the paradigm shift.  We talk about people with “big hearts” and people with “no hearts” as if they are born that way, ignoring the fact that a big heart can grow small through lack of use, and a small heart can be redeemed.  God never sees us as “stuck” the way we are — He is always calling us to become more like him, and there is no more compassionate act than the incarnation of His Son.  All of us are either becoming more compassionate, or less, through the decisions we make every day. “The Act of Killing” gives us as powerful a picture of this as I’ve ever seen. Here is a man most of us would consider heartless, perhaps even sub-human, yet through the bizarre stunts of an unorthodox filmmaker, compassion is awakened within him, and he repents.

I really wish “The Act of Killing” didn’t end when it did. The film dwells overly long on these men laughing over the terrible things they’ve done, but cuts out just when things start to get interesting.  I would love to know what happens next in the life of Anwar.  Does he have the courage — and the support – to pursue this repentance that he’s felt?  Will he do anything in his life to seek reconciliation with (or reparation for) the families of his victims?  Are his gangster days really over, or will he retreat back into the comfortable life, and the lies that justify the things that he’s done?

The film also challenges me to examine my own life. This is what I, a middle class American, have in common with an Indonesian gangster guilty of incredible genocide:  God is inviting both of us to grow in empathy and compassion for the people around us. And so those questions about Anwar, which I find so compelling, also apply to my life. How will I respond to God’s invitation?

How will you?

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Posted in All Reviews.

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