I try to be far more critical whenever I watch a documentary by a western filmmaker on a non-western subject. It’s a familiar pattern among western filmmakers to promote ‘western’ values such as democracy, freedom, individualism and liberalism by targeting, framing and “otherizing” a specific person, groups, event or memory in a non-western culture or the history of a non-western country where those values have not been progressed enough, such as China and Southeast Asia. They enforce a specific perspective on these people or phenomena in the ‘other world,’ by taking a ‘universal’ moral stance such as ‘killing is bad’ or ‘freedom is good’ and what not. Even though what’s going in the screen is absolutely authentic without any trace of direction, the viewer becomes subjected to the specific, ‘morally superior’ viewpoint of the director that seeks to disclose the ‘moral inferiority’ of the subject in his or her camera. As a result, the audience came to antagonize the non-western subjects as the ‘other.’
The motive behind The Act of Killing (2012), a critically-acclaimed documentary by an American-born filmmaker named Joshua Oppenheimer, seems to have not been very much deviated from that of other western filmmakers. Oppenheimer points his camera towards the persons and groups–e.g. Anwar Congo, Pancasilla– in Indonesia as the incarnations everything hated by western viewers who believe in human rights, democracy and freedom: terror, coercion, and violence. As a result, even though the director approaches Anwar Congo as a friend, the audience antagonizes him. Of course, I was disturbed by the terrible memories of the crime against humanity occurred in Indonesia in the 1950s and the fact that it has never been persecuted, but I was even more so by the director’s true intention to juxtapose the political reality of the country and that of the audience because the contrast is so great so that I just wanted to close my eyes. Unanswered questions were just hovering over my head.
On what grounds should I criticize Anwar Congo and his colleagues who live in a totally different system of morality? Which set of standards or morality should I use to condemn them, since their definitions of the right and wrong are worlds away from mine? What is responsible for this incredible gap between the ones living in the same continent? What could possibly be different if Anwar Congo sincerely atones for his past actions for the rest of his life?
As a member of Joshua Oppenheimer’s intended audience, the Act of Killing directed my anger NOT towards Anwar Congo but towards the reality of my own inability to make a difference. But I don’t deny the benefits of seeing a political documentary: it gives me a clear understanding of where I am in the world. I will watch the sequel, the Look of Silence (2014), at the earliest opportunity.