Your response to Act of Killing's ending (2 replies)
You've written on the previous forum your thoughts on 'The Act of Killing' and specifically your criticism of its ending and the 'performance' of Anwar Congo who you viewed to be 'acting', pretending to be sick in the final scene. I understand this is a common criticism of the film and director Joshua Oppenheimer wrote a detailed response on Reddit. It is long, but if you have the time, I would love to hear your thoughts and if this changes in any way your view of the film or its ending.
"Regarding the final scene on the roof: I have no doubt that Anwar is really retching. And in fact, I suspect viewers who feel he is faking it are in fact trying to protect themselves from the full terrible implications of empathising with him as a human being in that moment.
The set up for the final scene is simple. After 5 years of shooting, I finally was able to get permission to film on the roof again - in the spot where the whole journey began. This was 6 months after the scene where he watches himself play the victim. I ask him to take me back to the roof, and tell me what happened in each room, one more time. When we reached the roof terrace, he is caught totally unawares, blindsided by a physical reaction that belies his words. It’s as though his body physically rejects all the words he has been speaking. If you transcribe his words on the roof, they are much the same as we have heard throughout the film - “I had to do it, because my conscience told me they had to be killed.” (The only difference is that now he’s articulated his guilt: "I know what I did was wrong", he says just before this.) His body is finally rejecting his words.
As for whether it is staged - of course Anwar didn’t just happen to return to the roof. We planned to return there together, and he is trying to do exactly what I asked him to do: to tell me one last time what happened in the office. As he starts to gag and then retch, he probably has no words for what is happening to him. If he is thinking anything consciously, it is probably along the lines of “Maybe Joshua can cut this part out, and still get the scene he needs.”
For my part, I had this desire to put my arm around him and say “It’s going to be okay” (a manifestation of desperate optimism that we Americans are famous for). In that moment, however, I had this sickening realisation that no: it will not be okay. And this is what it looks like when it is not okay. And I realised then I could do nothing other than bear witness to what was unfolding.
More broadly: over the 5 year process of shooting (and in the film), Anwar tries to run away three times from the terror he experiences while playing the victim. First, by desperately imagining that in heaven he will be greeted by his victims, who thank him for killing them. (Even if this scene is a desperate effort to run from his pain, it is only thinkable because it is also the fundamental logic of the whole regime: we killed 1,000,000 people, and they should thank us for it!) Then, he watches the waterfall scene, and says how beautiful it is, and how it expresses such deep feelings. But something inside him draws him back toward his pain, toward his terror -- for that is precisely what he is trying to “make okay” by representing on film; he knows, at some level, that the vision of redemption at the waterfall is a lie, and he feels the need to return to the source of his pain, and reassure himself that it’s only a movie. He asks to see the scene where he is strangled with wire. But then, he calls in his grandchildren, using them almost as human shields. He tells them - and wants to reassure himself - that it’s “only a movie”. They get bored because, indeed, for them it is only a movie. They go back to sleep. Now he is naked, without the protection of his grand children, without his shields, as it were. He makes a final effort to convince himself that it’s only a movie, by offering me a generic confession: “Now, I feel the same as my victims.” He hopes I will accept - and that I will confirm to him - that there is no difference between the fiction scenes and the horrible reality he is attempting to tame by making them. He is hoping I will agree that there is no difference between acting and dying, and I cannot do that. And I think this is evidence that my goal was never Anwar’s redemption, for if it were I would surely have felt that finally he has given me the confession that I was waiting for all this time, and I would have accepted that he feels like his victims. But when I say “no”, he is forced to deal with the fact that he will never be able to escape the horror of what he has done, he will never escape the horror of his past.
You are absolutely right when you suggest that the screening back to Anwar is the key that leads him to the final scenes. It is during the screening that Anwar realises, finally, that he will never be able to replace the true horror of what he has done with his fiction scenes. He is desperate to convince himself (and his grandchildren) that “it’s only a movie”. And in the end he is forced to realise that he will never be able to bridge the gap between his fictional self, and his fictional accounts of what he has done, and the real unimaginable horror he has made others experience. And his final breakdown comes as he gazes into that unbridgable abyss.
And it’s in that sense that the end is anti-cathartic: there is no release. It’s as though he’s trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, but nothing comes up, because he is the ghost. He is his past. He will never escape what happened to him. And the final shot of Anwar standing on the stairs is his unconscious acceptance, I think, that he belongs to this realm of the dead. He may have escaped justice but he has not escaped punishment. I would imagine somebody so disturbed by what has happened on the roof to run out of there as fast as possible, but he stays, because he knows he can never escape it.
At the end, there is something spectral about him. Something as dead as alive - and the same is true of Adi’s numbness, as he gazes in the mirror of the salon with his daughter, while she gets a face massage. And the same is true of all of us, we, the perpetrators, who live off the suffering of others.
It is, therefore, not a psychodrama or a therapeutic process, but an anti-therapeutic process. He is trying to run away from his pain, not reconcile himself to it. It is cathartic, perhaps, but certainly not redemptive. Some sins leave too stubborn a stain."
Maybe, but nothing can change my initial reaction to what I was viewing. To me, it felt like someone using the film maker.
Interesting. Did you ever see 'The Look of Silence'? Did you have a more positive reaction to that film?