The documentary The Act of Killing (Final Cut Film Production, Copenhagen) premiered in 2012 at the Telluride film festival and was also shown at Toronto International Film Festival. The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the ethical deadlock of global capitalism.
The film – shot in Medan, Indonesia, in 2007 – reports on a case of obscenity which reaches the extreme: a film, made by Anwar Congo and his friends, who are now respected politicians, but were gangsters and death squad leaders playing a key role in the 1966 killing of cca 2,5 millions of alleged Communist sympathizers, mostly ethnic Chinese. The Act of Killing is about “killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.” After their victory, their terrible acts were not relegated to the status of the “dirty secret”, the founding crime whose traces are to be obliterated – on the contrary, they boast openly about the details of their massacres (the way to strangle a victim with a wire, the way to cut a throat, how to rape a woman in a most pleasurable way…). In October 2007, the Indonesian state TV produced a talk show celebrating Anwar and his friends; in the middle of the show, after Anwar says that their killings were inspired by gangster movies, the beaming moderator turns to the cameras and says: “Amazing! Let’s give Anwar Congo a round of applause!” When she asks Anwar if he fears the revenge of the victim’s relatives, Anwar answers: “They can’t. When they raise their heads, we wipe them out!” His henchman adds: “We’ll exterminate them all!”, and the audience explodes into exuberant cheers… one has to see this to believe it’s possible. But what makes The Act of Killing extraordinary is also the level of reflexivity between documentary and fiction – the film is, in a way, a documentary about the real effects of living a fiction:
“To explore the killers’ astounding boastfulness, and to test the limits of their pride, we began with documentary portraiture and simple re-enactments of the massacres. But when we realized what kind of movie Anwar and his friends really wanted to make about the genocide, the re-enactments became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatize the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people.”1
Did they reach the limits of the killers’ “pride”? They barely touched it when they proposed to Anwar to play the victim of his tortures in a reenactment; when a wire is placed around his neck, he interrupts the performance and says “Forgive me for everything I’ve done.” But this is more a temporary relapse which did not lead to any deeper crisis of conscience – his heroic pride immediately takes over again. Probably, the protective screen which prevented a deeper moral crisis was the very cinematic screen: as in their past real killings and torture, they experienced their activity as an enactment of their cinematic models, which enabled them to experience reality itself as a fiction – as great admirers of Hollywood (they started their career as organizers and controllers of the black market in peddling cinema tickets), they played a role in their massacres, imitating a Hollywood gangster, cowboy or even a musical dancer.
Here the “big Other” enters, not only with the fact that the killers modeled their crimes on the cinematic imaginary, but also and above all the much more important fact of society’s moral vacuum: what kind of symbolic texture (the set of rules which draw the line between what is publicly acceptable and what is not) a society must be composed of, if even a minimal level of public shame (which would compel the perpetrators to treat their acts as a “dirty secret”) is suspended, and the monstrous orgy of torture and killing can be publicly celebrated even decades after it took place, not even as a extraordinary necessary crime for the public good, but as an ordinary acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is, of course, the easy one of putting the blame either directly on Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalization which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.
However, the status of the “big Other” deserves here a closer analysis – let us compare The Act of Killing to an incident which drew a lot of attention in the US some decades ago: a woman was beaten and slowly killed by a violent perpetrator in the courtyard of a big apartment block in Brooklyn, New York; of the more than 70 witnesses who clearly saw what was going on from their windows, not one called the police – why not? As the later investigation established, the most prevalent excuse by far was that each witness thought someone else already had or surely would do it. This data should not be moralistically dismissed as a mere excuse for moral cowardice and egotistic indifference: what we encounter here is also the function of the big Other – this time not as Lacan’s “subject supposed to know,” but as what one could call “the subject supposed to call the police.” The fatal mistake of the witnesses of the slow Brooklyn killing was to misread the symbolic (fictional) function of the “subject supposed to call the police” as an empirical claim of existence, wrongly concluding that there must be at least one who effectively did call the police – they overlooked the fact that the function of the “subject supposed to call the police” is operative even if there is no actual subject who enacts it.2
- Quoted from the publicity material of Final Cut Film Production.
- One can even imagine an empirical test for this claim: if one could recreate a circumstance in which each of the witnesses were to think that he or she is alone in observing the gruesome scene, one can predict that, their opportunist avoidance of “getting involved in something that isn’t your business”, a large majority of them would have called the police.
- G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991, par. 260.
- Michael Yuen, “China and the Mist of Complicated Things” (text given by the author).
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.