Western religion, philosophy and even early psychology tells us that the world is made up of good and bad people, and their goodness and badness is based on some a priori concept of good and bad. Of course, this flies in the face of our daily experiences: people we label “bad” do good things (which we usually will not accept as “good”) and people we think of as “good” let us down, or otherwise do things we might think of as “bad”, with numerous variations between these two extremes. But we are taught differently in part because, even in this day and age, the vast majority of human knowledge on the subject says that there are two types of people, good and bad.
Most Westerners didn’t start questioning this orthodoxy until World War II. But they had plenty of evidence – the whole of human history – to see that this wasn’t true, if only they were able to look. The problem is that we human beings are incredibly good at rationalizing; we have created elaborate philosophical systems to explain how “we” are good and “they” are bad. It is, at some level, understandable as to why it took most intellectuals until the last hundred years to come to an agreement about the relativity of these standards. Previously, no matter how bad the acts of “good” people, we could muster some kind of religious or philosophical explanation (or, later, a psychological one); no matter how good the acts of “bad” people, we could must some kind of religious or philosophical explanation, or just dismiss them outright.
The Act of Killing may be the first non-fiction film that truly captures the truth that the Existentialists found in the Holcaust; that social psychologists found in their critiques of behavrioualism; that Phil Zimbardo found when he locked up a bunch of students in the basement of an academic building in August 1971.
This film follows a group of participants in a genocide as they attempt to make a film reenacting that genocide. The participants are indeed normal human beings (sure, at least one of them is a little eccentric, but still…), with regular thoughts and feelings – with the exception that they once killed lots of people. The film discovers this essential truth: people are born neither good nor bad, they are just born people. Sometimes people do horrible, unconscionable things and, sometimes, if they are allowed to get away from these things, they aren’t even as tormented by these acts of their past as we feel they should be. (“In a just world, at the very least they’d be tormented by guilt!”) We are presented with a reality we do not wish to face: people kill other people and often the killers are okay with it. Morality is contextual – if society permits your actions your guilt for transgressing will, more often than not, be far less than that of a person in a society that does not permit your actions. There’s a lesson in that, but the film isn’t concerned with preaching, which is to its credit.
And there’s one other lesson the film captures perfectly: we are all hypocrites, everyone of us.
And we are implicated, in a way. Not in the hypocrisy – we are all hypocrites anyway – but in the violence. Because here we are watching human beings discuss a film reenacting real deaths. And they discuss the prospective film in the same way we might. And they promote the film in the same way we might. (Only our film wouldn’t be real, right!) This isn’t that far off from the celebration of white collar crime that occurs daily in our countries, is it? (Okay, that’s a little extreme…)
But maybe I’m being too hard on all of us – the perpetrators in particular. Maybe this is just a veneer. Maybe this film is a way of exorcising their demons, only they don’t want anyone to see. That makes me feel better, but I really, really doubt it. These men appear to enjoy reenacting what they did and, if we are really willing to think about this in an honest way, this makes sense. Because killing is wrong only when society makes it so. Animals, far as we know, feel no regret for killing to survive. And we’re not as far away from that as we’d like to think. This is particularly true given the film I just watched. Somewhere there is a performance art project in the making dubbing sermons over scenes from this film.
One of the most important films you’ll ever see and on the short list for film of the century.