The Act of Killing, which tells the story of the mass killings in Indonesia in the mid 1960s from the perspective of death squad leaders, earned an Oscar nomination on Thursday for best documentary. It deserves to win, but the film’s mainstream success shouldn’t cause it to be viewed as any less radical.
Indeed, there are numerous ironies to The Act of Killing being embraced by Hollywood, among them the fact that the film never would have been funded through the channels available to US documentary filmmakers. Joshua Oppenheimer, the film’s Texas-born director, pieced together a budget in Denmark, Norway, and England, and spent nearly a decade filming reenactments of genocide by actual genocidaires. Essentially, Oppenheimer was asking for money to fund an artistic collaboration with mass murderers. The film’s critical success doesn’t make his vision any less audacious.
I wrote a long piece for CJR in September that detailed The Act of Killing’s groundbreaking documentary method, a method which I argue is a radical critique of standard journalistic practice. As Oppenheimer told me when I interviewed him in July, “Whenever you talk to somebody as a journalist, they stage themselves for you. They think, ‘How do I want to be seen by the world?’ And we try to get past that and extract from those interviews information that we can treat transparently. But we’re throwing away a great resource. Because in the moment of someone presenting themselves, in that self consciousness, is something also worth exposing: What is the image that they have of themselves?”
By indulging the egos of death squad leaders, The Act of Killing forced Indonesia to look in the mirror and see a nation founded on mass murder. It’s surely one of the most politically subversive films ever nominated for an Oscar—and has been far more politically effective than the agitprop that often passes for documentary in the United States. As if exposing mass murder weren’t enough, the film is also a detailed exposé of the corrupt regime that grew out of the killings. As one Indonesian critic wrote, “The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel.” An Academy Award seems trivial compared to what the film has already accomplished—all the more reason it deserves one.
The Act of Killing should be equally unsettling to Americans. Another grand irony of the film being nominated for an Oscar is that Indonesia’s mass murderers modeled themselves on Hollywood gangsters, and even adopted execution methods from American films. Of course, the killings portrayed in the reenactments were supported by our government and cheered in our newspapers—a fact already known to anyone with a basic understanding of US history during the Cold War. In the American context, Oppenheimer says, The Act of Killing seeks to show audiences something that they already knew “so forcefully and powerfully that there is no longer an option to deny it.” He hopes it makes audiences say, “‘Oh, shit. What does it say about me that I knew that?’” Beyond whether the film will win an Oscar, that’s the question that should be on our minds this awards season.