Snapshots of the Executioners

Richard Martin


When the images of torture and abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public in 2004, what was it that shocked so many people? It surely came as little surprise to most observers that the human capacity to perform such acts exists, not least during a military occupation. In the words of Susan Sontag, 'someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists […] has not reached moral or psychological adulthood' (Sontag 114). Indeed, for some observers, the Abu Ghraib images simply confirmed their worst fears about the invasion of Iraq or resonated precisely because they were so familiar. Commentators discussed their connections with pornography, college initiation ceremonies and spring break vacations. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, claimed: 'Anyone acquainted with the US way of life will have recognized in the photographs the obscene underside of US popular culture' (Žižek 19). By this account, we should not have been so shocked by the images because we are exposed to similar cultural forms all the time.

Still, the Abu Ghraib images shocked. The shock, perhaps, was not so much at the violence and humiliation taking place in the photographs; rather, that these acts had been captured by cameras. More precisely, the shock emanated from the origin of the images – that they were taken not via some secret hidden camera, but by individuals involved in the abuse itself. These were images deliberately created by the perpetrators of violence, acts staged in full knowledge that cameras were present. As Sontag pointed out in her response to Abu Ghraib, 'the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken.' What was so disturbing, then, were the gestures of performance, the sense of fun, the shamelessness, the absence of guilt, and an apparent desire to record such events like holiday snaps.


Witness Against Torture

Shocking images of abuse and torture: the images from Abu Ghraib prison shocked the world because they revealed the perspective of US perpetrators

[Image by Justin Norman under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Moreover, perhaps our shock at the Abu Ghraib images came from the recognition that photography had not only recorded this abuse; it had, in some sense, actively produced it. As Sontag wryly noted, '[t]here would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn’t take a picture of them.' At Abu Ghraib, the camera itself became a kind of perpetrator, willing the soldiers towards more extreme acts. Abusive scenarios were composed, it seemed, primarily with the demands of the camera in mind. We were shocked, therefore, not that torture and abuse had taken place in the prison, but that they had taken place for the purposes of an image. What was obscenely explicit here was not the bodies on display, but the image-making.

Images of torture and abuse created by the perpetrators of violence continue to have a particularly problematic status. We often celebrate or critique journalistic images of warfare, while in the aftermath of conflict, it is the testimony of victims, and the images taken by witnesses, that hold precedence. The images created and choreographed by the perpetrators provoke much more discomfort. They produce an instinctive resistance from spectators. Part of the shock of Abu Ghraib was that the images constituted an exceptional historical event. As Sontag observed, 'snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare.'

What it means to assess the perspective of a perpetrator has in recent years been much debated. Previously in Alluvium, I wrote about Jonathan Littell’s highly controversial novel The Kindly Ones (2006), which was seen as a provocation by many reviewers because it narrates the Second World War through the perspective of a Nazi SS officer. Why does such an approach retain its capacity to shock? In response to 9/11 and the furious arguments over ‘explanations’ of the terrorist attacks, Judith Butler wrote: 'Our fear of understanding a point of view belies a deeper fear that we shall be taken up by it, find it is contagious, become infected in a morally perilous way by the thinking of the presumed enemy' (Butler 8). For some, Butler suggests, exploring the perspective of a perpetrator risks re-enacting their point of view, as if we will mimic the performance of their acts. We might, however, be better placed if we bear in mind that performing is never far away from perpetrating. Indeed, the term ‘perpetrator’ stems from the Latin verb perpetrare, which means to perform or accomplish something; to execute a task, as we say. Performing, then, is what perpetrators do. They perform a crime.


Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing interviews members of Indonesia's death squads in the 1960s and films them re-enacting these events

[Image used under fair dealing provisions]


From its title onwards, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing (2012) stresses these links between performance and the perpetrator. In so doing, it offers an 'exceedingly rare' insight into the executioners of violence. The film combines interviews with members of Indonesian death squads from the mid-1960s – when over a million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals were murdered – with their own re-enactments of the events, performances heavily influenced by Hollywood. Much celebrated since its release – it won the annual Sight and Sound film poll in 2013 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014 – The Act of Killing has also occasioned significant debate about images of torture and violence.

The central figure in the film is a man named Anwar Congo – the former leader of a death squad in North Sumatra said to have personally killed hundreds of people. Anwar is a compelling cinematic presence. He dresses in sharp suits and bright shirts, having modelled himself on his favourite film stars: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley. Indeed, the movies have played an important role in Anwar’s life: he began his crimes, like many of his friends involved in the massacres, by selling cinema tickets on the black market. In fact, Anwar claims the idea of using wire as a method of murder came to him from watching gangster films.

What shocks in The Act of Killing is Anwar’s lack of guilt or shame. He joyfully explains how he performed torture. Equally shocking is how he and his friends are celebrated for their actions – greeted as heroic figures in the street and invited onto television shows to remiss about the slaughter of the Communists. The current Indonesian elite, including ministers, military officials and members of the media, are shown to be complicit with the killers. Amidst the discussion, and often glorification, of this bloody past, the film is also filled with strange interludes – shots of billboards, shopping malls and beauty parlours – the spaces of a booming economy. Oppenheimer, we might surmise, is keen for us to query the historical foundations of this present prosperity.


Pancasila Sakti

A killer's perspective: filming the Indonesian 'Gestapu' has raised questions also levelled at fictional representations of Nazi Gestapo officers, told from the first-person point of view

[Image by Chez Julius Livre 1 under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


All this footage alone makes The Act of Killing a fascinating insight into a culture where the perpetrators of violence are regarded with pride. What moves the film into even more disturbing territory are the subsequent re-enactments we see. Oppenheimer extends the re-enactment process – used, famously, by documentary film-makers like Errol Morris, an executive producer on The Act of Killing – into radical new ground by giving the perpetrators full rein to create their own cinematic re-enactments of torture. 'We have to re-enact this properly,' Anwar says, earnestly. For maximum authenticity, the killers plan a feature film on the massacres of the 1960s.

Oppenheimer, at this point, shifts from being a documentary film-maker interviewing perpetrators to a collaborator on a joint project. The script, casting, set design and costumes for this film-within-a-film are all controlled by Anwar and his colleagues. Remarkably, Anwar himself is keen to re-enact scenes from the past with himself now playing the victim. Specific cinematic genres – musicals, westerns and a noir-ish scenario in which Anwar is ‘tortured’ within a shadowy office – are gleefully adopted. The re-enactments peak with an elaborate village ‘massacre’ involving perpetrators, their friends, members of a paramilitary organisation and local children.

What drives the perpetrators to re-enact violence in a cinematic fashion? In one sense, it is a logical step: Anwar states the importance of Hollywood cinema in shaping his approach to killing and now he wants to complete the circuit by repeating those Hollywood gestures on film himself. In effect, he recreates acts already premised on the staging of powerful cultural gestures. It is apparent, moreover, that Anwar and his friends are well aware of contemporary global media. They recognise that in the competitive international marketplace of images, their accomplishments require memorable cinematic dramatisation. The acts, therefore, are not only being staged for an Indonesian audience; they are also designed for a western spectator largely ignorant of Indonesian history.

What, however, motivates Oppenheimer to collaborate with them in this production? Partly, it is the desire to evoke strange connections with contemporary political culture in the United States, especially regarding the swagger of power and the use of violence. In particular, the director has continually emphasised the links – in performance and gesture – between the Indonesian violence he explores in The Act of Killing and the abuse at Abu Ghraib. The echoes between these two situations transformed his project, Oppenheimer claims, 'into a nightmarish allegory.'


Ampera Bridge

Palembang's Ampera Bridge opened on the first day of the September Movement violence, but should we 'twin' such traumatic locations with sites such as Abu Ghraib?

[Image by M. Caesar Trinova under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


According to Sontag, 'it is intolerable to have one’s own sufferings twinned with anybody else’s' (Sontag 113). To what extent does the same logic apply to the perpetrators of suffering? Is it intolerable to twin the acts of US soldiers in Iraq with those performed by Indonesian killers four decades earlier? If the notion of utilising a massacre for allegorical purposes might strike us as problematic – although Oppenheimer’s statements on allegory pose a challenge few critics have yet to take on – there are more concrete associations which strengthen the director’s approach. For instance, his position as a western outsider in Indonesia proved in many ways advantageous. The director claims the killers never questioned his motives in filming them: given that he is American and the US supported the military dictatorship in Indonesia that followed the massacres, they simply assumed he was 'on their side.' In addition, The Act of Killing’s emphasis on the Hollywood passions of Anwar and his fellow killers suggests that cinema itself is a perpetrator, just as photography seemed complicit at Abu Ghraib.

If film is culpable, though, it is also through the film-making process that Oppenheimer forces unusually stark reactions to the surface. In The Act of Killing, Anwar begins to question himself as the re-enactments advance. When he plays a victim, he starts to ask how his victims must have felt. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, he staggers around, desperately retching, as if trying to rid himself of the past. It is a scene which many reviewers to date have responded to in somewhat naïve fashion, seeing it as the moment when 'the layers of artifice are stripped away' and Anwar at last confronts the real consequences of his murderous deeds. Thus, even after The Act of Killing has so indelibly pressed upon us the importance of performance in the perpetration of violence, critics have suspended their disbelief so that these final scenes make possible a kind of redemption. While this finale is undoubtedly powerful, it is intriguing, if not disturbing, how easily Anwar’s apparent shift in conscience has been embraced. Critics appear exceptionally eager for a cathartic moment, the establishment of truth and narrative satisfaction at the end of an unsettling two hours. In short, as soon as Anwar starts performing our conventional notions of guilt, we think he is no longer performing.

Judith Butler has suggested that 'dominant forms of representation can and must be disrupted for something about the precariousness of life to be apprehended' (Butler xviii). We might see The Act of Killing as offering new possibilities for understanding torture, abuse and murder in the manner in which it disrupts and undermines the dominant forms of Hollywood cinema – by aligning such forms with the actions of mass killers. Yet, crucially, it is by allowing the very perpetrators of violence the time and space to utilise those forms themselves that the film generates its rare power. If we are to overcome the fear of understanding a perpetrator’s point of view, if – in other words – we are serious about confronting how and why violence occurs, then a certain degree of agency might need to be passed to the perpetrator when it comes to the representation of violence, without attendant fears of moral contagion. At the same time, a clear and comforting separation between those representations and the original crimes can, and perhaps must, also be disrupted. Emphasising the performances inherent in both scenarios, as Oppenheimer shows, is shocking but essential.



Thanks to Zuzanna Ładyga for the conversations and encouragement which led to this piece.


CITATION: Richard Martin, "Snapshots of the Executioners," Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 17 October 2014.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Dr Richard Martin completed his PhD at Birkbeck’s London Consortium, having previously worked for two years at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). He has taught at Birkbeck (University of London), Middlesex University and Tate Modern. He is currently adapting his doctoral thesis, entitled The Architecture of David Lynch, and is living in Berlin.[/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

The Act of Killing. Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer. 2012.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

Naymar, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’, Cinema Scope, No. 53: [accessed 10 January 2014].

Oppenheimer, Joshua. ‘Director’s Statement’: [accessed 10 January 2014].

Schenker, Andrew. Review of The Act of Killing, Slant Magazine, 16 March 2013: [accessed 10 January 2014].

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003).

Sontag, Susan. ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times Magazine, 23 May 2004.

Žižek, Slavoj. ‘Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture’, London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 11 (3 June 2004), 19.



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