Tom Keenan, Dana Stevens, and Joshua Oppenheimer in Conversation

From Spectatorship, Race, and Citizenship

But if we follow Richard Mosse’s thinking, how do we measure when the sharpest tool is successful, whether viewers feel something about the representations of weak and noncitizens they witness? Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film, The Act of Killing, focuses on the role of perpetrators in state violence, employing reenactment rather than straight documentary to examine the aftermath of state-sanctioned mass killing in Indonesia and the national myths that have emerged from this difficult history. Much of the discussion about the film has questioned the ethics of the filmmaker’s interactions with the perpetrators as they stage the reenactments of their killings, and has equally probed whether the feelings expressed by the perpetrators—typically boastful, proud, and unremorseful—are genuine. Questions of spectatorial identification and disidentification with the perpetrators are the focus of this discussion with film critic Dana Stevens and curator and theorist Thomas Keenan, concentrating particularly on a pivotal scene in the film that shows self-described “gangster” Anwar Congo gagging at the site where many of his murders were committed. As Keenan notes, a structural risk of many of these films that seem to take the side of the perpetrator of genocide “is that the intimacy that is important for getting stories can lead to too much intimacy, a danger of humanizing, in the bad sense of the word.” While some critics, including Errol Morris, have refused this intimacy with the perpetrator, reading Anwar’s physical reaction as another performance for the camera, Oppenheimer offers a more psychoanalytic interpretation, arguing that the gagging signals Anwar’s encounter with his trauma: “I do believe we are our pasts, I do believe that trauma and experience leaves a physical incoherence, a very real mark: something beyond words.”

September 8, 2017


Curated by

Gabrielle Moser