Sartre on Violence in Oppenheimer’s Film

Whether instigative or retributive, violence has shaped every past generation, as if it were a human tool used for creating history itself in our own likeness. This fact of reality is particularly clear to see, yet obviously uncomfortable to acknowledge, much less correct. And if this self-awareness of violence is to be considered one of mankind’s great challenges, then Joshua Oppenheimer embarked on a monumental task with his two documentary films:  The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. In both films, Oppenheimer stares directly into the eyes of violence by interviewing both the culprits and the victims of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide. The purpose of this entry is not to condemn the psychopathic acts of the Indonesian death squad members, although I certainly do. It is neither my purpose to examine whether their victims were justified in any retaliatory violence, for they clearly were. Rather, I just want to offer but a response to comments made in both films and compare them with the responses to violence offered by 20th century post-colonial philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Hannah Arendt.

While Pol Pot was butchering at least one million innocent Cambodians in the name of Communism, the Indonesian government, backed and enabled by the United States, butchered at least one million alleged Communists in the name of fascism. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer not only interviews several death squad leaders, but actually encourages them to re-enact their favorite methods of torture and murder. Much can be said about Oppenheimer’s approach to such brutal material. These men are not only unrepentant of their former atrocities, but actually enthralled with the opportunity to share and even celebrate them with others. Oppenheimer’s technique encroaches upon its viewer until violation. At many times, it becomes insufferable. In the end, however, this might be the entire purpose of the film. It is as if Oppenheimer is forcing us to feel and understand moral realism for the murderers. One such murderer was Anwar Congo. Oppenheimer spent much of the film interviewing Congo who, as a former gangster recruited into the genocidal regime, boasts of his criminal background. Congo constantly stated that “Gangster means free man”.[1] But this sense of independence came from the most malevolent understanding of self-determination and it was clear that their “freedom” was an uninhibited subjugation of their victims. In re-enactment after re-enactment, Congo’s victims’ incapacity for retaliation was as precious to him as the act of killing itself, maybe more so. I recall Sartre’s claim that “Oppression comes from freedom . . . it can come to one freedom only though another freedom”[2] and that the conscious denial of another’s freedom was required for the edification of the oppressor.

Their methods of killings also struck me as critical to understanding this freedom-denying endeavor. My previous recollection of genocides included Hitler’s gas chambers, Stalin’s firing squads, and so on. But even in those atrocities, the methods used kept killers partially detached from the suffering of their victims. The chambers of Auschwitz, for example, industrialized genocide to the point that no matter how many lives were taken, the killers were, in a sense, still emotionally removed from their victims. However, Congo gloats of his choice weapon as wire and relishes in his victims’ diminishing strength as he strangled them to death. Not only were Congo’s prey used as a means towards his own sick need for empowerment, but his method was reflective of the nature of his need itself. He wanted to be no more than arms-length from their pain. It almost seemed as if each of Congo’s victims were pieces of a existential puzzle for him. He savored that he, not the wire, was the weapon used against them; he was the presence that caused their misery. He was the Zyklon B, and he was the bullet from which they could not escape.

The Act of Killing has many prominent scenes, but none so visceral as the one that follows. In it, Congo is speaking with his former death squad leader, Adi Zulkadry. Congo tells Zulkadry that he has trouble sleeping. This insomnia was not necessarily due to the crimes that he committed, but the fact that he did not close his victims eyes after killing them. Zulkadry, who is even less repentant than Congo, later encourages Congo with the comment that even if they did not kill their victims, then they would just have “cursed them in silence”[3] anyway. These two comments reminded me of Sartre’s Hegelian-inspired master-slave dialectic and the struggle for “recognition”. In Curiously Ambivalent, Ronald Santoni describes this Sartrean struggle, writing, “In doing violence to the Other, I treat the Other as both ‘essential and inessential’:  since I ‘require’ her, I recognize her as free, while I simultaneously ‘declare’ her to be ‘purely determined’. I want both to ‘obligate’ the freedom I address and to ‘destroy’ it.”[4] Congo’s fear of the eyes of his dead reflected the end of “recognition” given to him by his victims. He had removed the freedom needed to place meaning into his act of killing, yet when he stood over their lifeless eyes, he had discovered that he needed their living stare to reconcile his own means with his desired end. This means and end, however, was ultimately justified in Congo’s eyes because if he decided to not kill, then he would still require the process of killing. In other words, no matter the case, his desire to determine and dominate the will of others was only satisfied through the act of removing their capability to refuse, but their ability to refuse was required for Congo’s ultimate satisfaction. This contradiction defined Congo’s motivation for violence.

Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence was less ferocious than The Act of Killing, but more nauseating for a couple of reasons. First, it consisted of a victim’s brother, Adi Rukun, conversing with his brother’s unapologetic killers. With every impenitent criminal interviewed, The Look of Silence becomes increasingly degrading, both to the audience and, most importantly, Adi Rukun. Second, it makes plain the numbing effects that violence takes upon not only its perpetrators, but its victims. What I immediately noticed was Rukun’s bravery in approaching each murderer and his willingness to forgive them if they only asked. But they never did. Instead, they justified their actions as reasonable. In one interview, Rukun asked current Indonesian Speaker to the Regional Legislation, M.Y. Basrun, if he would admit the truth to his constituency. Basrun gestured disapproval at the thought, nonchalantly replying, “That’s politics. Politics is the process of achieving one’s ideals.”[5] This equivocation with “politics” was a common tactic among Ruskun’s interviewees and reminded me of the absurd power that we often, and thoughtlessly, ascribe to governments. In On Violence, Hannah Arendt wrote, “ . . . it must be admitted that it is particularly tempting to think of power in terms of command and obedience, and hence to equate power with violence, in a discussion of what actually is only one of power’s special cases- namely, the power of government.”[6] In the Indonesian genocide of 1965, our government’s direct support of the regime played an important role in this unmerited power and authority in the minds of Indonesian oppressors. In an effort to stop communism, and in spite of several U.S. intelligence reports confirming that we were well aware of the Indonesian regime’s actions, we tacitly condoned genocide. In The Look of Silence, a death squad member, Amir Siahaan, commented, “We did this because America taught us to hate communists.”[7] While this by no means excuses Siahaan’s crimes against humanity, it does mean that they are our crimes as well.

Both of Joshua Oppenheimer’s films can be summed up in one quote by Adi Zulkadry: “War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m the winner. So I get to make my own definition. And more important, not everything true is good.”[8] As despicable of a human being as Zulkadry is, he is completely right in this regard. There appears to be little space in mankind’s history at which he  can look at his creations, his institutions, values, and so forth, and say that we are completely good. However, it is abundantly clear that we can be evil, as Oppenheimer’s work demonstrates. Throughout both films, I became more pessimistic regarding Oppenheimer’s endeavors, as there was no hope nor redemption to be had. Nevertheless, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are not supposed to be displays of our virtues, but our vices. One encouraging extract, however, came from further contemplation upon the common attribute each killer, and even some victims, consistently displayed: dishonesty. They each bowed to an authoritarian either inside or outside of one’s self without question of one’s own honest obligation to others. They knew it was wrong, but they continued to lie both to themselves and to history. In The Act of Killing, Zulkadry said, “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse.” I have never killed, but I do justify my own iniquity against others by way of some apology. And insofar as I willingly remain in this state, disingenuous or hateful in my attitude to others, combined with being placed within a certain context or predicament, I can rest assured that I too may become an Adi Zulkadry. G.W.F. Hegel considered history to be a “butcher-block”. This characterization is one that I can wholeheartedly agree with. However, I am unsure there is true progress to be had in the heart of man. History repeats itself because man seldom realizes that in order to distance himself from his errant acts, he must first admit that they may never be far from him. These acts will continue from one spectrum’s end to the next, and at its darkest outcome, man finds himself repeating more acts of killing.

[1] The Act of Killing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, performance by Anwar Congo. Final Cut For Real

  1. 2012.

[2] Sartre, J. Notebooks for an Ethics. 1983. University of Chicago Press, 1992. Pg 174. Print.

[3]The Act of Killing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, performance by Adi Zulkadry. Final Cut For Real

  1. 2012.

[4]Santoni, R. Sartre On Violence: Curiously Ambivalent. Penn State press, 2003. Pg 24. Print.

[5]The Look of Silence. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, performance by M.Y. Basrun. Final Cut For Real

  1. 2012.

[6] Arendt, H. On Violence. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1970. Pg 47. Print.

[7] The Look of Silence. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, performance by Amir Siahaan. Final Cut For Real

  1. 2012.

[8] The Act of Killing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, performance by Adi Zulkadry. Final Cut For Real

  1. 2012.

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