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The opening scene of "The Act of Killing" sets a surreal tone for the film. Photo courtesy of Final Cut for Real

Mythologies of war

A new wave of documentary filmmakers avoid platitudes as they explore the enigmas of conflict

By Kevin Spurgaitis


Picture Indonesia’s former death-squad leaders re-enacting mass killings with the swagger of the American action-movie stars they most adore. This disturbing image is the wild-eyed premise of The Act of Killing, one of a flock of inventive documentaries from the past decade that examine the culture of war. Unlike conventional historical treatments, these recent films don’t simply reinforce patriotic myths or stoke anti-war sentiments, using endless archival footage as props. Instead, they feature the participants, observers and architects of war themselves — those who stretched and at times abandoned their ethical sensibilities in the face of conflict, only to carefully re-examine them in hindsight. Together, the documentaries ask poignant, philosophical questions of viewers: How do we disentangle what’s just from what’s criminal? To what extent should we intervene in conflict? Why do we consider some evils worse than others?

In The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer invites aging paramilitary toughs to make a movie about their brutal campaigns against Communists, ethnic Chinese and other critics of the military forces that ousted Indonesian president Sukarno in 1967. The massacres resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people between 1965 and 1966. But the perpetrators faced no trials or truth and reconciliation commissions. Instead, they helped to run the country, insisting that they be honoured as national heroes. Forty-five years later, the film’s participants reimagine their past selves as cowboys, film noir gangsters and other kitschy archetypes — the American movie tropes that inspired them in the first place.

In making the film, Oppenheimer aimed to “expose and interrogate the nature of impunity,” he told Village Voice. “I was entrusted by this community of survivors [in Indonesia] to film these justifications, to film these boastings” of war criminals.

In an early scene, we meet Anwar Congo, a wiry, well-groomed grandfather and former death-squad leader. On a roof where he once performed executions, he takes time out to demonstrate his preferred garroting technique, involving a chair, piano wire and a block of wood. “At first, we beat them to death, but there was too much blood,” Congo chillingly explains for the cameras, before dancing an impromptu cha-cha-cha on the killing floor. As if recalling family get-togethers gone by, he shares stories about how people begged for their lives, how their bodies were wrapped in burlap sacks and neatly disposed of.

Profoundly unsettling, horrific and surreal, the performances of Congo and other killers show how easily “the most damning truths” can be spun into self-aggrandizing mythologies, as culture critic Dana Stevens noted in Slate. It’s only during post-production of the movie that Congo recoils in horror at the dramatization of his past sins. Even war criminals, it seems, can start to show pangs of conscience when forced to appraise their own actions.

Another lament for war’s harshest outcomes can be found in last year’s Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? about the life and work of Tim Hetherington. The combat photographer and co-director of the Afghan war documentary Restrepo died from government artillery shelling in Libya while covering the 2011 uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. What’s ironic about the 40-year-old’s death is that it happened as he was preparing to quit combat journalism altogether — after too many years in body-strewn battlefields, he had seen enough mortality.  

The film, directed by author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger, faithfully depicts Hetherington’s humanity amid the numbing brutality of conflict. There’s heart-rending video of him assisting civilians in Liberia’s civil war and laughing with children in Sri Lanka.

With this footage and Hetherington’s own photographs, Which Way Is the Frontline from Here? pays thoughtful tribute to this “fallen brother in arms,” as he’s described in the film, offering moving insight on what drives someone far afield to bear witness.

An equally profound take on conflict is Errol Morris’s The Fog of War. This 2003 film, which won an Oscar for best documentary, examines the true nature of modern warfare through a series of interviews with Robert McNamara, the former U.S. secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Sporting oily, thinning hair and rimless glasses, the 85-year-old McNamara matter-of-factly recounts his career in the defence department, starting with planning Second World War bombing raids that saw 100,000 burned alive in Tokyo; helping to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; and serving as an architect of the Vietnam War, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 3.4 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American service people.

McNamara admits that during wartime, nobody in power truly knows what they’re doing. “War is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

Though he ultimately falls short of offering a mea culpa for his actions, the film still derives 11 lessons from McNamara’s life. The first and perhaps most important: “Empathize with your enemy.”

Of course, as historian Paul Fussell once argued, “the horror of combat defies the attempts of language to represent it.” Even so, with worthwhile seriousness, these recent war documentaries fight the good fight against historical revisionism — and its close ally, indifference. Lest filmgoers forget. 


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