87. ‘Freedom’ to murder: Your capitalist democracy and Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’

You’ve had a hot and busy week, teaching Art History, using London’s museums. You couldn’t help noticing the museum’s have only a fraction of the numbers of visitors you normally expect to see at this time of year. You assume its partly to do with the glorious weather, but perhaps partly to do with an increased wariness (caused by terrorism) of crowded public spaces.

Summer School teaching is as demanding and responsible (and therefore as busy and as tiring) as term-time teaching, and yet, there is something to do with the time of year, the kind of students, and perhaps the subject of Art History itself (not generally taught any more as part of any Fine art Degree programme) that can make Summer Schools an especially joyful teaching experience.

This is the only time of the teaching year when you ever find yourself cycling home, in a warm breeze, without rushing, feeling that you’ve done your job well and that many hours of daylight still lay ahead, in which you can read, relax or attend to your own works.

As the week came to a close you finally got around to watching, on DVD, an art film about which you have been hearing for several years. You have never been one to chase hype and labour to see the latest, most fashionable films or shows. Yes, you do often miss something ‘important’ but London is so brimming with ‘important’ events demanding your time that you long ago developed a strategy for dealing with it without feeling a constant sense of being behind the weekly tsunami of ‘important’ events.

That strategy is largely chance and convenience i.e. you keep abreast, using reviews and journals and hearsay, then attend if it is convenient, if you are passing, or if chance throws an event or artwork into your path.


The ‘important’ art film that you finally got around to viewing this week was ‘The Act of Killing‘, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. It didn’t seem to matter that you didn’t see it when it first appeared. In fact, in some ways, you wonder if an eventful period of hype, reviews, heated conversations around a new art work are not likely to disallow a truly dispassionate and more objective judgement of the work.

If you attended dinner parties, it may cause regular embarrassment that you ‘haven’t seen’ this or that play, art show, movie, or read this or that “amazing” new novel etc. But after more than 30 years as an artist in London you can honestly say that the number of dinner parties you have attended could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and so, for you, discovering contemporary art and culture has always been akin to practice i.e. a relatively private, and often magical affair, uninformed and un-directed by ‘hype’, fashion and gossip.

It’s hard to disagree however with the commonly-held judgement that this film is some kind of ‘masterpiece’, fusing, innovative ways, creative and political values in ways that allow the audience to think through a damning and depressing social scenario in truly new ways. Even more impressive, an accompanying interview with the director suggests that the film has already brought about real change in the object it addresses.

That object is Indonesia and the fascistic legacies of its Western-backed, mid 1960s anti-communist dictatorship. If you are interested and involved in politics or in contemporary art, I agree too that you ‘must see’ this film. It is truly ‘bizarre’ (an often carelessly used word), as well as being grotesque, two values which have been used to describe other infamous fascist regimes.


Following WW2 and the Nuremberg trials we learned that evil could be described as ‘banal’, but later historians of Nazism also came to point out its bungling and absurd aspects, some of which had in fact been reflected by Bertolt Brecht’s immediate response to fascism in certain elements of his thought, theatre, and very black humour.

If you are ‘of the Left’ politically then you will also be horrified, watching this film, to recognise numerous repeated tropes of fascism that are bubbling away not far from the surface of a society near you. It must be a very frightening time to be any kind of progressive, intellectual or artist in Turkey today, but look at your own society too when you watch this film and ask yourself if it doesn’t also seem to be mobilising the anger and potential violence of a reactionary and resentful lower class, disempowered by the inexorable movements of capitalism and now ready to sign up to a ‘loyal’ and ‘patriotic’ relationship with a ‘strong leader’ who promises new ‘freedoms’.

Here, you are missing-out any general description of this now well-known and often discussed movie. All that is readily available to the reader elsewhere. As a Blogger you prefer to find a more personal and more topical ‘angle’ with which to evaluate the film, and it lies within this disturbingly uncanny sense of familiarity.

Liberal thinkers and those ‘of the Left’ nurture ‘hope and change’ (famously mocked by one U.S Republican presidential candidate) and seek to ‘progress’ a society above and beyond the base and inhuman needs of a capitalism that often seems to have democracy tucked in its pocket as a relatively ineffectual force that can occasionally be utilised as a tool with which to leverage more wealth and power to the already wealthy and  powerful.


However,  this film seems to show us that the choices that face us today are persistent, perennial if not eternal, and, worse, that they are always clearly polarised. In the 1960s, the Right Wing Indonesian regime murdered (and appear to have ‘enjoyed’ murdering’)  somewhere between half a million and two and half million people because: they were ‘communists’, they might be communists’, they were ‘of the Left’, or they were merely of Chinese origin and thus associated with communism.

Oppenheimer’s film is about a society that has not reflected on or regretted this activity, but, on the contrary, has continued to lionise the perpetrators of a genocide as the founders of the nation. His extremely hard-won film, made in dangerous circumstances over an 8-year period, is also informed by his apparently acute insight into human psychology.

But, as you have said above, despite the truly surprising, thought-provoking and informative value of this film, its most chilling point may be that, despite all our ‘hope and change’, and all our hope for change, you too may well live in a society where the concept of ‘freedom’ has been hijacked by those who want ‘the people’ to be ‘free’ of any collective responsibility to nurture and protect a civilised, generous, kind and tolerant society.


The Indonesian government, then and now -as depicted in this film – rely upon a huge militia that is nether an army or police force but a kind of grown-up, macho, ragtag boy-scout movement. The government also lionise various various kinds of business-like  ‘gangsters’ who ‘get things done’.

Meanwhile the murderers of the 1960s refer to themselves, proudly, as ‘free men’ impressed by and inspired by Western and largely American values (and movies) that provided and continue to provide them with a model of stylish, cool, swashbuckling rogues, ‘free’ of the law, ‘free’ to avoid ‘bureaucracy’, ‘free’ to exploit and shake-down anyone weaker then themselves, and ‘free’ to disparage any ‘weak’ talk of ‘rights’ and ‘political correctness’.

Britain has recently comes increasingly under the spell of the once laughable, absurd and bizarre  UKIP, a party whose policies are being ventriloquised by the encumbent Right Wing Tory government as they follow UKIP’s xenophobic, ‘little-Brit’ agenda. Meanwhile Trump ascends in the US election.

And thus we see that many of the tropes, the language, the acts, and social organisations found in ‘The Act of Killing‘ seem, sadly, not exceptional but all-too-familiar, even fundamental aspects of any capitalist society that plays fast and loose with its relation to democracy; fundamental aspects of any capitalist society that is not appropriately governed by progressive, counter-reactionary powers and which therefore, clearly, rapidly and perhaps inevitably slopes off from a Right Wing adoration and centralisation of ‘business’ and a certain notion of business-like ‘freedom’ toward the unfettered and unscrupulous activities of the most brutal forms of gangsterism.


3 thoughts on “87. ‘Freedom’ to murder: Your capitalist democracy and Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’

  1. I’ll look it up – Oppenheimer ( any relation ?) beware the right and left , Cambodia , gulags

    I enjoy these , 750 is about my attention span now since I bought an iPad .


    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks Andy, yes, if you haven’t seen it you will be impressed, appaulled, fascinated I am sure.
      Thanks for reading. Sorry the Blog waxes and wanes a lot, and this week’s is a bit long …


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