I recently watched the documentary The Act of Killing. The premise of the film is somewhat confusing, but it is about the people involved with the killings in Indonesia from 1965-66 as a result of an anti-communist purge. The documentary follows a few individuals reenacting their roles in the killings in a bizarre fashion.
In many ways, what the viewer witnesses in the film is indescribable. As the director Joshua Oppenheimer reflected, "It’s as though I’m in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, but the Nazis are still in power." The perpetrators of the killings are open, honest, and at times even outright boastful about their past.
As the film progresses, you witness one of the main characters, Anwar, painfully wrestle with his past. At the beginning of the film, you see him gleefully discuss how exactly he killed people on the roof of a building. We find out that despite this apparent pride in his role in the killings, he has frequent nightmares about the people he killed. Later in the film, Anwar plays a victim in one scene and refuses to go on, distraught and unable to continue acting. At the close of the film, Anwar revisits the same roof and retches.
Watching The Act of Killing is a challenging experience. In a recent conversation with Sam Harris, Oppenheimer hits right at the core of that experience at around the 42 minute mark:
Recognizing that virtually every act of evil in our history has been perpetrated by human beings like us, it's uncomfortable because it means that we might, if we lived in other situations, do the same thing. If we grew up in any of these perpetrators' families in 1950s Indonesia, come 1965, we might make the same decision. We would hope that we wouldn't, but most of us are very lucky never to have to find that out. And that's uncomfortable.
Oppenheimer continues, digging a little deeper:
But if you overcome that, you quickly realize that recognizing that every perpetrator is human with very few exceptions and shares the same human morality is the only hopeful response because if there's just monsters among us then we either have to surrender ourselves to this kind of thing happening again and again and again in a kind of despair, or we have to isolate the monsters and somehow neutralize them. And then, how do we stop ourselves from becoming the monsters?
Answering his own question:
Whereas if we can build societies in which we foster the widest possible empathy and where we also foster doubt, where we teach children to doubt what authority tells them so that it's more difficult to incite people to join groups that would betray their individual morality, then we ought to be able to build societies where this kind of unimaginable violence truly becomes unimaginable, where it becomes impossible.
This recognition that Oppenheimer speaks of takes far more courage than simply categorizing the people who carry out these despicable acts as the other and the epitome of absolute evil. It's only when we sit with the uncomfortableness that it could've been us given another circumstance that we truly equip ourselves with the tools to engage with this kind of violence.
The Act of Killing (trailer; Theatrical and Director's Cuts available on Netflix) is worth your time and attention.