Warning: the following contains spoilers for The Act of Killing (2012). If you didn't see it, and don't want it spoiled, stop reading.
The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is a painfully difficult movie to watch. As poetic as it is terrifying, it represents "a haunting testament to the edifying, confrontational power of documentary cinema", according to RT's critics consensus. It is also, I believe, a movie that is ultimately optimistic about the human nature. Let me elaborate.
The film follows individuals who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66. The genocide was the result of a military coup orchestrated by the Indonesian National Armed Forces and supported by the US. After seizing power, the army initiated an anti-communist mass purge, in which more than one million people were brutally tortured and killed (some recent estimates going as high as two to three million). The killings perpetrated by the Indonesian death squads in that period "rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s", as reported in a top-secret CIA document. The resulting civil unrest led to the fall of President Sukarno, the first ever president of Indonesia, and the establishment of President Suharto's three-decade dictatorship.
The film focuses on a group of gangsters who participated in the mass murders, and are now revered like heroes by the paramilitary organisation that grew out of the death squads. Anwar Congo, one of these apparently remorseless executioners, brags about torturing and killing more than a thousand people and describes the way he used to do it in excruciating details. He takes the film crew to the rooftop where he used to "silence" his victims, and shows how to effectively kill a person without spilling too much blood. From his words, we understand that he considers himself a saviour of his country, his means completely justified by the ends. Seemingly unaffected by this macabre ordeal, he starts dancing, praising the therapeutic power of music. Watching this scene, I wondered if there was any shred of humanity left in him. Was he always a sadist without empathy and human compassion who simply found an acceptable way to release his worst instincts, or did the particular events he participated in change him irreversibly, to the point of showing absolutely no sign of regret for his actions? Either way, the thought that some people may never be confronted with the evil they did disturbed me.
Oppenheimer approaches the men with an alluring proposal. They would star in his new Hollywood-style movie depicting their heroic gestures during the war, and they would get to re-enact the murders exactly as they happened, with state-of-the-art special effects and in their own favorite genres. The former killers are quick to accept the offer, but what they don't realize is that their movie will never be released. The actual movie Oppenheimer is working on is the documentary that follows the film-making process and their eventual coming to terms with what they did.
The shootings begin, with horrific depictions of violence against innocent people, and the first cracks in the wall start to emerge. The more they recreate the scenes in the movie, the more the men grow restless and doubtful about their role in the killings. They start to question if what they did was morally right, and worry about the reaction of the public. Congo confesses to the camera that he has problems sleeping at night, since he is constantly tormented by the screams of his victims when he is alone in his bed. He wants to make them stop, but doesn't know how. As the cracks grow larger, I begin to realize that many of these men are not inherently depraved, they are just extremely flawed human beings. Their horrible actions were not due to their perverse nature, but rather by a mix of self-preservation, selfishness and stupidity. If you think you would have been better than those men in that particular historical context, think again. This is the old concept of the banality of evil, first put forward by writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt when she tried to rationalize the appalling actions of Adolf Eichmann, Nazi high official and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Eichmann famously defended himself during his trial by saying that he was simply following orders, doing his job, and as such he was not morally responsible for his actions. In fact, he was not only obeying orders, he was obeying the law in force in Nazi Germany. What Arendt was trying to convey, I guess, is that many times evil arises as a side effect of something that is not blatantly morally wrong, like following direct orders in the case of Eichmann.
In the act of telling their own story, the death squad leaders become conscious of their past actions through the task of having to present it to an audience. The aesthetic distance ends up being the distance these men need to truly examine what they have done. Once they are immersed in the fiction of film-making, they get to see the consequences of their actions under a new light, in a way that they cannot escape. The mental barriers built as a mechanism of self-defense over the decades collapse under the weight of the miserable truth that was lurking somewhere in the depth of their souls for all those years.
Anwar Congo cannot finish the scene in which he is playing one of the victims. Visibly upset, he leaves the film stage and goes back to his family for solace. While he is watching some of the footage with his grandchildren, he confesses to Oppenheimer, behind the camera, that he got afraid during filming and asks him if it was really that bad for the actual victims. Oppenheimer replies that it was arguably worse, because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Anwar was only acting. The camera gives us a haunting close-up of a distressed Anwar, tears of remorse running down his face, as he asks Oppenheimer, and himself, "Have I sinned?".
Anwar revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, this time at night. After trying to describe once again how he had killed people during the genocide, he clings to the railing while retching repeatedly, the facade he put on for his whole adult life now completely destroyed. He is finally confronted with the enormity of the act of killing. All the lies, the politics, the excuses he crafted in his head to protect his fragile conscience from the horrific acts he committed, gone. I like to think of this scene symbolically as him regurgitating all the evil he did during those years, like a foreign body that was stuck inside him for too long and that was now being expelled.
Are these men wicked? Yes, I believe so. It would be naive to think that years of genocide did not break some fundamental human thread inside them, probably irreversibly. Nevertheless, the strength of The Act of Killing lies in giving its audience a glimmer of hope that the human spirit cannot be corrupted absolutely. It tells us that there is no escape from the evil we do. No matter the explanations we create to absolve ourselves, our deepest core is able to distinguish good from evil, and it will eventually reminds us. Human beings are not intrinsically amoral, and even the most cold-blooded murderer (with some exceptions, admittedly) will eventually be tormented by guilt. Philosophically, this points to some kind of universal moral law. Not in the sense that ethics is like a mathematical formal system, with universal laws derivable from pure logic and a reasonable set of axioms. It's not. Then again, that doesn’t mean that "anything goes", a la moral relativism. The truth, as in most cases, is somewhere in the middle and has to do crucially with human nature, and our particular evolutionary history.
A fundamental aspect of what it means to be human is that we are social animals, and evolution shaped our brain structure in such a way as to facilitate social interactions. Highly social individuals created stronger tribes and were more likely to survive in the wilderness. This led to empathy, which forms the basis of any moral system ever conceived by our species. Morality should be regarded as a spectrum, which is quite wide and allows for a lot of variation, but not limitless. The boundaries, I believe, are set by empathy and what has been called the Golden Rule of morality. This is a maxim that is found in many religions and cultures and basically states that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. It is, I believe, a moral law that is deeply embedded in our biology, and escapes any attempt at relativism. The act of killing is, and forever will be, a violation of our core human essence.