Going in, I thought The Act of Killing was a documentary about the indigenous filmic practices of Indonesian paramilitary veterans, in which men who had killed thousands following the U.S.-backed overthrow of Suharto in '65 reckoned with their motives and tried to come to terms with their violence and its aftermath. I had only glanced at various synopses, at the AFI Docs website or on Flixster. Mostly I was struck by the film's marketing image (above) of an enormous, surrealist fish perched on a shore, and the column of pink-clad figures who seemed to have emerged from its mouth. But I was also interested in the film's relationship to violence and spectacle, both locational and mediatized, having researched Bombay's Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena and its rise, also from the mid-'60s, to prominence nationally and within Maharashtra state thanks in large part to its public spectacles of violence—spectacles that were further spectacularized by Indian media, particularly via U.S.-influenced Bollywood gangster films. I was curious to see if The Act of Killing rebuked this spectacle and offered something else: a counter-spectacle, if you will.
Instead, the film amounts to little more than a Western propaganda piece about the evilness of others, without acknowledging the role of the U.S., for instance, in Suharto's removal and in provoking the anti-Communist fervor that animated the mass killings, nor the role of the U.S. director Joshua Oppenheimer, without whom there'd be no filmic practices of the now-grizzled members of the Pancasila Youth, the ostensible subjects—that is, objects—of this fiction. I should be clearer: there is no "foray into filmmaking," as The Act of Killing's official synopsis puts it, by "Anwar Congo and his friends." Instead, Oppenheimer asks Congo et al. to act out the stories of violence they purportedly share among themselves, and the director's camera records these increasingly staged scenes until Oppenheimer himself gets to condemn Congo for his murders. But this confrontation is as illusory as the film at large—it only occurs because Oppenheimer has created the conditions. Never mind the fact the director has palled around with Congo and his buddies since 2004. Congo understandably might have trusted Oppenheimer, who not only gives Congo the means to realize his Hollywood fantasies but also promises, explicitly or not, the global circulation of them. Such is the power of a white American's camera, especially in global locations where the range of U.S. cultural imperialism is seen and felt.
There are no ethics in this projection of Oppenheimer's own fantasies on to the material bodies of Congo and the others, who include, as the film proceeds, numerous extras. Indeed, the film's nadir goes well past ethics into outright harm when it subjects dozens of local Indonesians—the film was shot in and around Medan—to physical and emotional turmoil during a recreated melee in what looks to be a forest. At the end of the violence, Oppenheimer pans in on a child crying uncontrollably, then on a dazed woman gasping for breath amid lingering smoke from fires set during the scene. The director wants to highlight the victims of Congo's tactics, but these are the victims of Oppenheimer's own tactics: there would be no such suffering were he not filming a scene he has both asked and helped Congo et al. to stage. It's an unconscionable moment akin to the odious Stanford prison experiment of '71, in which a similarly deluded director—professor Philip Zimbardo—sent students into a simulated prison to act out the roles of guards and inmates. Among other effects of this staging, the guards psychologically tortured many of the inmates and also coerced them into torturing their fellow prisoners, while Zimbardo, observing all this, let it continue. (Nowadays, Zimbardo, like Oppenheimer, is keen to talk simplistically about good and evil, and what he calls the "Lucifer Effect." Like Oppenheimer, he's also been honored for his work, despite the harm it's caused.)
The point is that staging something sets the conditions under which people act, whether in the basement of the Stanford psychology building or in a forested area outside Medan. In the latter case, if there were no scene being filmed, there would have been no harm to the aforementioned visibly harmed extras (and they were just two out of the many). The process that Oppenheimer enacts by asking Congo et al. (and Congo is the de facto leader of this group of men) to stage their past violence leads to present violence: the "collateral damage" of the filming itself. The initial scenes are of Congo and his pals re-enacting their deeds themselves: they're quasi-knowing actors insofar as they've agreed to Oppenheimer's request. But as more and more people are roped into the process, abetted by the camera's presence and whatever off-screen negotiations there were, the majority of the actors become unknowing participants, there only because Congo and Pancasila Youth members have effectively demanded it. There's a spectacle to be filmed by Oppenheimer, after all, and the men don't want to miss out on the opportunity to dramatize their exploits for a new global audience.
I should point out here that, contra to the surrealist fish image, The Act of Killing's scenes are primarily realist, as reenactments tend to be. There are nods to noir, and some campy horror make-up and effects, but aside from the fish and a related scene of pink-clad figures dancing in the spray of a waterfall, the film endeavors to place the Pancasila Youth men—and the audience—into the original context of their actions. The two surrealist scenes, then, are outliers, and not just in terms of their form: their inscrutability is at odds with the seeming transparency of the historical, lived re-enactments. What kind of fantasies are being expressed in these two scenes exactly? In the second iteration of the waterfall scene, towards the end of the film, an "actor" tells Congo that he was glad to be killed, an obviously self-serving fantasy of Congo's, but why the waterfall location? Why the pink garb? There's likely a cultural symbolics at play here, but Oppenheimer doesn't explicate it, in keeping with his overall contextless approach. Instead of taking to task Congo, for instance, the director might have detailed the U.S.'s involvement in Suharto's overthrow and the country's Cold War geopolitical interests across Asia. That certainly would've been a valuable approach for American viewers, who could've learned about yet another violent abuse of power by their government, especially as such contemporary geopolitical warfare—against Iraq, Afghanistan, the vaguenesses of "terror," and, possibly next, Syria—is arguably more robust than ever. But such an approach would've also been useful for Indonesian and other viewers to learn, once again, about how U.S. imperial actions have materially shaped—that is, staged—the conditions under which they live. Instead, Oppenheimer, like many a U.S. filmmaker before him, chooses to ignore this history and place the burden of responsibility solely on Congo et al., whom the director makes look even worse by their enjoyment of the re-enactments.
The name Congo, of course, points to an important parallel with the African Congo, the setting of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which similarly sought to expose the heart of darkness at the center of the racialized other. The difference between that fiction and Oppenheimer's, however, is that Conrad wanted to expose the horrors of colonialism and not the horrors of the colonized, even if he perpetuated racist tropes about the horrors of Africans in the process. In contrast, The Act of Killing purports to expose the horrors of Congo and the Pancasila Youth by way of unacknowledged colonialist tropes, and elides the colonizer—here, the U.S. as global power—altogether. It's a reprehensible piece of filmmaking.
The spectacle of the film is all the worse because it takes material advantage of living people, but in that, The Act of Killing is merely a step ahead of more-easily-identifiable works of fiction, such as the Bollywood gangster films I note above or Jeet Thayil's Booker-nominated 2012 novel Narcopolis, set in Bombay/Mumbai and also a topic of my recent research. Indeed, although The Act of Killing appears to be a film about gangsters making a film and isn't, "gangsters" actually do make films in other U.S./European-capital-dominated spaces of the global south. In the paper I've been working on that's based on this research, I describe how various intersecting political economies—colonial British, postcolonial Maharashtrian/Indian, and contemporary global (that is, the related capital flow of multinational firms and the economic structural adjustment of Indian and other "developing" nations via the World Bank, IMF, and WTO)—produced material inequities in Bombay and Maharashtra that the Shiv Sena was able to leverage to perpetrate violence in service to its Maratha-Hindu nationalism. This strategy has been incredibly successful for the Sena: aside from ascending to the chief legislative bodies of both Maharashtra and India, it also led the campaign to rename Bombay Mumbai, the vernacular pronunciation of "Bombay" in Marathi, the official language of Maharashtra, rendered in English.
In the following excerpt from my paper, I explore the relationship between the Sena's street spectacles and the concomitant media spectacles of them, including those in Narcopolis. (My primary research source in this excerpt is Thomas Blom Hansen's Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay, but the reference in the second paragraph to "elimination," which frames the paper at large, comes from Achille Mbembe's analysis of mortal and material expenditures in contemporary African states in the Comaroffs' anthology Law and Disorder in the Postcolony.) After the except, I make a final remark about how The Act of Killing might participate in a similar dynamic vis-à-vis the Pancasila Youth.
What we see in the case of Shiv Sena and their sainik foot soldiers is a group of men with differential holds on and claims to masculinity—and, therefore, material and symbolic power—and at various scales: local (among the Maratha Hindu males of the Sena and among them and other Mumbai men); national (insofar as Bombay is the commercial/financial/media capital of India); and global (among all Mumbai/Indian men, including the Sena, and northern capital/ists). Accordingly, violence orchestrated by the Sena can be an expression—a compensation—for any of these power imbalances. Sainiks can kill Muslims, they can rape women or men (proving their masculinity in either case), or they can target capital directly in street riots and property damage.
If the Sena’s discourse stoked this complicated dynamic, it’s also reinforced by cultural discourse at large, particularly by the news media and media forms in general, including crime tabloids, film, and literary writing. The Sena has a significant media arm of its own, comprised of several periodicals, but it’s the representation and circulation of its “violent public spectacles” by other cultural producers I’m particularly interested in: the propagation of spectacles of spectacles and the concomitant widening of psychic economies based on them. Specifically, what happens when the psychological experience—or structure of feeling—of elimination is picked up and distributed globally by Western capital interests? And does this experience or structure have a counterpart in the West? Indeed, to take the example of “Mumbai noir,” heavily indebted to U.S. noir (via Hollywood) as it is, suggests that the same dialectic of law and disorder, legality and criminality, attends to both the global south and the north, even if its effects—for now—may be more intense in the former given the latter’s economic hold.
As Gyan Prakash notes, the “dark form” as a mode for representing modern urban dystopia has a long, and particularly colonial, history (1). William Booth’s 1890 screed In Darkest England, for instance, tied urban metropolitan crisis to Africa but it spoke to a generalized fear of the other vis-à-vis India and the British Empire’s worldwide holdings in the midst of the apex of formal imperialism and its tensions. And while the dark form would later be taken up by Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s and transformed into noir, this earlier colonial precedent is important to remember in the context of Bollywood’s version of noir that gained prominence in the 1980s. The Mumbai noir inaugurated by films such as The Godfather-inspired Nayakan (1987) thus draws on both a colonial imaginary and a U.S. one. The former, however, is not always recognized by critics writing on spectacle, noir, and contemporary Mumbai. Ranjani Mazumdar, for instance, sets her discussion in the “context of globalization” (401), whereby she elides the colonial formation of darkness while replicating it anew by opposing the “dark space” of the “underworld” (414) to the “light space” of the bourgeois “interior city” (404). In this way, denizens of Mumbai’s “middle and upper class” are akin to Victorian Londoners, both threatened by an ever-encroaching disorder from elsewhere.
Of course, as I’ve been trying to show, and as the class positions in Mazumdar’s analysis indicate, disorder, darkness, and the underworld/underground are products of the dialectic of law and order that underwrites particular political, economic, and social ends. Therefore, while she notes the “material connection of finances” between Bollywood and Bombay’s criminalized economy (415), she fails to consider the discursive stake that a group like the Sena has in depictions of violence and strife. Thus, she asserts, “One of the principal features of noir is its ability to destroy urban spectacle” because its evocations of “shadowy and mysterious spaces” sharply contrast with the “phantasmagoria of aerial photography so commonly used in tourism and travelogue films” (423). But as my tracing of the effects of various political economies on Bombay shows, those shadowy spaces are part of the same phantasmagoria as the aerial footage: city bureaucrats may offer one spectacle to global capital and consumers, while other urban actors display their own spectacles on Mumbai’s streets and screens for the city’s residents.
In the case of the Sena, the group’s material connection to the Bombay film industry is one of deep imbrication, in both the financing and the production of “gangster” films. According to Hansen, the term “gangster” first came into use in the 1970s via “American gangster mythology” and was applied by “police, officials, and the press” to describe members of Bombay’s criminalized economy (188). How this happened remains unclear, as do the particular ways the Sena came to participate in the making of gangster films. But since the mid-’80s, the group’s entanglement with Bollywood has been “wide-ranging and complex,” involving
the “Motion Pictures Unit,” Shivsena Chitrapat Shakha, which organizes employees in the film industry, a number of directors and actors who produce Marathi and Hindi films and are closely involved with members of the Thackeray family who invest in their films, as well as Cable Sena, a recent association of smaller cable TV operators in the Mumbai area. (213)
Hansen goes on to describe the example of the director N. Chandra, “a self-avowed supporter” of the Sena whose various films, beginning with Ankush in 1985, depict violence as a form of justice for “poor and marginalized figures”—“an enduring element in the Sena ideology” (214). Given the scale of reception for film, and its mimetic-like, experiential qualities, the Sena, then, had found a more potent form in which to circulate their street-level spectacles. That is, if the middle and upper classes weren’t directly witnessing Sena-orchestrated violence—if they were, say, only reading about it in the papers, or catching glimpses on broadcast news—then they could see it in extended visceral fashion without leaving their homes or, to go to a movie theater, their enclaves. Film, of course, is a paradigmatic way of experiencing the other, at least in the psychoanalytic tradition that I’ve already been using in this essay.
It’s in this context that we must consider both the representations in and the global reception of Narcopolis, which is set in the criminalized lifeworlds of Bombay over the last 40 years or so. Its main narrative thread (as its title implies) is the role of narcotics in an economically transforming Mumbai, in particular the effects that opiates and their changing commodity status have on a cast of characters that includes a traditional khana, or opium den, owner, a hijra woman who works in the khana and a nearby brothel, a dada subordinate who sells cocaine and “black-market whisky” for the boss, and a native informant who’s returned to the city after a long stint in New York. The novel foregrounds the history of the opium economy—first an eastern Mediterranean and Asian trade good, then a British-imperial commodity produced in India for sale to China, and, since the early 20th century, a fully global commodity in both legalized (pharmaceutical) and criminalized (heroin) forms (see McCoy)—as a stand-in for the wider political economic changes I sketched above. Specifically, we see a version of how heroin’s replacement of opium as the in-demand drug in Bombay affects people who’ve subsisted on the market for the latter, at the same time that other global capital flows reshape the city in other ways (by the novel’s end, for instance, the khana has been replaced by a call center owned by the khana owner’s son).
I say “version” because this is Thayil’s particular treatment of this shift, of course, and for the remainder of this paper I want to consider the particular narrative and representational choices he makes and their possible effects on readers—who, since the novel is only available in English, must largely occupy the upper and middle classes of India and (more likely) of Britain and the U.S. Indeed, Narcopolis has done rather well in the Anglophone literary prestige economy, winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and having been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Hindu Literary Prize, the latter an indication of how the book has been received in religio-cultural contexts.
Akin Adesokan has claimed that “Commonwealth” novels that garner attention in the West are primarily concerned with representing, or relating to, “political or humanitarian emergency” (3). Further, he claims that these novels typically share five additional characteristics, among them a narrator or protagonist who is “culturally innocent or marginal” and who can thus register the “emotional consequences of familial or public upheavals” (4). These two characteristics are key for what they evade: “a culturally innocent” character by definition can’t recognize the structural contexts of his or her life, and though a “marginal” character may have a better vantage, the everyday challenges of marginalization may deter such awareness (I return to this point in my conclusion). On the other hand, if “emotional consequences” are prized, literally, by Western literary elites, then other consequences—political, economic, social—are not. In contrast to their politically unaware characters, however, the creators of these avatars seem to be quite aware of the politics of the awards market, adroitly leveraging them to achieve acclaim.
But, what, exactly, are metropolitan elites rewarding? What are northern readers getting from a text like Narcopolis—or, on a much grander scale, Slumdog Millionaire, also about strife in criminalized lifeworlds? In interviews, Thayil, born in Kerala, has cited his own experiences in Bombay’s khanas as his chief inspiration, but whether he was also influenced by Bollywood gangster films or a particular masculinist ideology is unclear, though he has said he would find “fist fights” between authors “more satisfying” than intellectual skirmishes (Ghose n.p.). Certainly his dada-subordinate character, Salim, styles himself after “two tough-guy actors,” namely John Travolta and Amitabh Bachchan, and Thayil gives him the opportunity to reference a (possibly invented) movie starring the latter called Polyester Khadi, “in which Bachchan played a policeman’s son who becomes a criminal because he sees how hard his father’s life is” (136-137). “You know what he tells his father, played by the veteran Sanjeev Kumar?” Salim asks a visitor to the shop that provides a front for his criminalized labor. “Are you a man or a pajama?” (137-138). It would seem, then, that Thayil has incorporated, at least in part, some of the overt signs of masculinism that the Shiv Sena produces and promulgates.
I go on to develop this point in the remainder of the paper, but The Act of Killing now gives me a generative new example to think through these questions of global psychic economy, and the ways that media can perpetuate, rather than disrupt, troubling reactionary political forms, whether in Indonesian, India, or the U.S.