Born Free

by Drew Dickerson

Illustration by Lizzie Davis

published September 19, 2013


Half the crew of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing does not exist, or at least goes uncredited. A quick glance at the credits on the movie poster hanging outside of Cable Car on North Main reveals the same: the political situation in Indonesia is such that to attach your name to a picture of this nature quickly amounts to a very, very bad idea. There are names, however—producers, executive producers, cinematographers, editors, sound people, and the director, 38 year-old Josh Oppenheimer—of Westerners that we can hold responsible for the plain fact that this piece of media, against better sense, exists at all. Errol Morris (of The Thin Blue Line) and Werner Herzog are attached as well. A friend of mine who saw the documentary in a Los Angeles screening described Herzog fielding the post-showing Q&A as someone trying very hard to explain something very complicated to very stupid people.

     The German director’s famous condescension and grandiloquence aside, it is hard to walk away from The Act of Killing feeling that one has purchase enough upon it to formulate a clear or cogent opinion, much less a useful or responsible one.  It makes of the viewer a stupid person. I myself walked away from the theater convinced that I was going to write about issues of taste, how The Act of Killing represents a tasteful curation of the tasteless. To do so now would, I suspect, be a cheap maneuver.  Two or three minutes of playing around with this sound-bite proved its ill-suitedness, a cute enough phrase that commands the force of a genuine insight without being particularly meaningful. A half hour upon exiting I realized that I had to cancel my plans for the remaining evening. I’m trying very hard not to sound flip. I’m trying even harder not to lapse into defanged cliché or easy platitude. I would like, more than anything, to talk about “Born Free,” the song at the center of The Act of Killing’s film-within-a-film.




     Between 1965 and 1966, somewhere around half a million and two-and-a-half million people were killed in political purges following the Indonesian military’s overthrow of a democratically-elected government. The charge of communism was leveled against intellectuals, undesirables, and many ethnic Chinese, these “communists” interrogated, tortured, and killed by self-avowed gangsters. Oppenheimer provides a man named Anwar Congo, a now-elderly former killer, and his associates the means and equipment to recreate their killings in a feature-length narrative film. It’s formally high-premise, which means it’s very easy to get lost in problems of structure, probably a strength of the movie.  The result is garish and gruesome. We see colorful costumes that look to be lifted straight from Brazil, without any of Terry Gilliam’s wry knowingness. Bad boy imagery is one-to-one and lifted from post-Classical Hollywood, this despite the fact that some of these tropes are so antiquated that it becomes hard to imagine their belonging to a period of postanything. This is 1965 Hollywood, where The Sound of Music could win Best Picture at The 38th Academy Awards. Try tracking down the television clip of Robert Goulet’s 1964 motorcycle appearance on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret” as the Shangri-Las sing “Leader of the Pack” for some idea of the cultural matrix from which Anwar Congo’s film emerges. The Act of Killing is the making of Anwar’s film which, for the sake of shorthand convenience, I’ve decided to call Born Free, “Born Free” also the name of the rhapsodic song that plays at the climax of Anwar’s movie. In one chilling sequence, Anwar draws on a cigar and describes himself as a “human dropout,” maintaining that there are thousands of people like him all over the world. We are uncertain whether or not he is acting. He is likely uncertain whether or not he is acting. The clown comes to want to play Hamlet and the real, live gang-member in time wants to see himself realized as such on the Silver Screen. The challenge of Oppenheimer’s flick is that the image presented within the context of The Act of Killing is both ostensibly the same and radically different than the same sequence as narratively diegetic to Anwar’s Born Free.          

     The etymology for the Indonesian “gangster” is laid out and explicated at least three times. It is an Anglicism, from “free men”—the English “free” and “men” thrown together in a sort of strange pidgin audible to the viewer, provided he or she is not too far buried in attention to the subtitles.  A government minister tells a crowd of gathered paramilitary fighters that the nation needs free men, men of action exclusive to the state, otherwise the state could never work. Never mind the fact that, though these men are not part of the government bureaucracy, they are still perpetrators of state violence—this by the minister’s own account above. The vitalistic fact of gangsterhood is here both its political and cultural importance. “Freedom” becomes the favorite phrase of the gangster’s bastardized liberalism.

     One thinks of the mob classics Little Caesar or The Public Enemy, films made before the 1934 instatement of the censoring Hays Code, films the violence of which would not be again matched until the demise of the studio system. One thinks more immediately, though anachronistically, of Goodfella’s Henry Hill (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States”). There is a reason for this: the Indonesian figure of the gangster is intimately tied with Hollywood’s vision of same. The “free man”, in his ruthless, dynamic iteration, realizes exactly the watchword of Scarface in both his 1932 and 1983 versions: “The World Is Yours.” The Act of Killing’s movie theater gangster Anwar Congo—the man who stood outside of movie theaters scalping tickets and stood to withstand a huge loss in profits should the communists ban Western films, the man who would later kill and terrorize these same communists with the absolute impunity of one victorious—continually made and remade himself in and as the Hollywood gangster. In very real terms, Congo is the product of something like a Culture Industry. What’s more, there is in the official’s “we need gangsters” claim, a naturalistic appeal. Violence is a condition of action and we need men unafraid to enact violence if our society is to prove vital.  At the same time and on the same terms, ruthless, violently enacted freedom both belongs to a state of nature and is perfectly natural.

     Which is why the song’s being written in English is certainly disturbing and potentially a productive entry-point into treatment of the film:


                  Born Free,

                  As free as the wind blows,

                  As free as the grass grows,

                  Born free to follow your heart.


                  Live free,

                  The beauty surrounds you,

                  The world still astounds you,

                  Each time you look at a star.


     Nearly every time the word “freedom” is mentioned in the film, it is in English, spoken by presumably non-English-speakers. It is a term detached from its referent, floating in a precarious space where it can be brought to bear on nearly any object and made to mean nearly anything.  Freedom, here employed, is not a political condition but that which is appealed to in Indonesia in order to prevent politics. 




A cursory education in continental thought teaches one to name a number of threats to the possibility of an egalitarian politics, that such threats even have a name.  The Indonesia of The Act of Killing realizes exactly the rampant consumerism, ideological complacency, and conversation-ending appeal to lay-person’s pop science that the student of discourse-analysis is taught to identify and parse out. It’s stunning to see them work as they are brought to bear on one another in a coherent and functional constellation, even more stunning for the fact that they appear here in the most vulgarized form imaginable. A friend tells Anwar that he should seek therapy (indiscriminately switching between the words “psychologist” and “neurologist”) for his nightmares, that a therapist will prescribe him “nerve vitamins” that will make the bad dreams go away. There is a long shot of two women taking a selfie in an Indonesian shopping mall. This is funny for a second but soon becomes unbearable. Because the shopping mall is Indonesia. Though the constituent violence required in making the country function is both considerable and horrifying, the state still functions.

     Situated above the fracas of systematic killing and extortion, there is still the possibility of choice, at least for some. Freedom, for the movie theater gangster or government official, becomes immediately predicated upon the ability to hold others in contempt, to extort from them or to kill them. One must be a winner. It is an incumbency that one is born for, and these words are bandied about in no uncertain terms.  In The Act of Killing’s Indonesia, empty rhetoric holds an absolute sway, all the more strategic for the fact that nobody believes it. Anwar is praised for developing a more “humane” way of perpetrating mass murder. To look at his system, looped wire run around a pipe, is to realize the hollow quality of this phrase as it is sounded again and again in perpetuity. There is an absolute cynicism in the deployment of ameliorative sentences and narrative-shaping turns of phrase—all of this enacted with the cold, formal logic of an ostensibly post-ideological endgame: (1) It is the winners who write the history of conflict; (2) I am a winner; (3) It falls to me to write such a history.  Modus Ponens, QED, rinse and repeat. It is through Hollywood’s visual vocabulary and conventions of genre that recognition of one’s self as term in such a syllogism again arises. 

     Culture here becomes weaponized, or at least provides the tools for disavowing the fact that one has used a weapon, is using a weapon, will continue to use one’s weapon. To go one step further: that one is carving out a space in the future for a politics centered around the use (or threat of use) of weaponry. Anwar strangles his victims with steel wire and is very upfront about the fact that he learned to do so watching American gangster movies. The killers hired by the military coup to eliminate political enemies were cinema thugs, standing outside of theaters on nights of popular screenings and scalping tickets. They are highly film-literate with respect to a very specific category of movies. Hollywood is unique in its dubious privilege of being both a global and globalizing cinema—the name Elvis Presley, which is dropped in The Act of Killing with frequency, is at one and the same time locally specific and recognizable in all locales. Hollywood is then a world cinema, though not in the sense of coming from a position of specific national identity (in the way that we talk about Iranian cinema or Japanese cinema). Its entertainments are shared and disseminated across the world, and this is not an incidental but an intentional part of movie making and distribution. Films are made for the global market, a picture sometimes released with the knowledge that it will flop domestically on faith that the backers will recoup on the international box office. It is by design that Congo knows Al Pacino’s name. And the “free man” Anglicism is probably directly attributable to these films as well. “Born Free” is written in English because, for people all around the world, English is the language both of cinema and popular music. The killers sing the Everly Brothers. They sing “Cotton Fields” (in one stranger moment of recognition I realized that I own The Highwaymen LP upon which the song as arranged appears).  It is easy to forget popular culture’s global fact until you see an Indonesian man campaigning for municipal office while wearing a Transformers franchise T-shirt.

     The West is then directly implicated in Indonesian violence as it is portrayed in The Act of Killing. Consider: A friend of Anwar’s tells him that his film Born Free will reverse history “not by 180, but by 360 degrees.” This seeming malapropism speaks exactly to the import of just what it is that Anwar has unwittingly made. In a narrative-reversing turn, Born Free restores cruelty to the gangsters (“We will show that we were the cruel ones. Not the communists”). At the same time that this gesture is committed, Anwar and his associates come to realize themselves as the movie stars they always thought themselves to be. The formulation “I am Al Pacino” is brought to full circular bear as the action that was disavowed, elided, and disowned by means of film is itself committed to film. In this way, The Act of Killing is probably one of the only movies I’ve ever seen to interestingly interrogate the idea of violence in media. The emptiness of our own conversations surrounding the topic is revealed in the documentary’s recursive over-fullness. Our articles and talks that gain currency every two to three years surrounding a Tarantino release are probably bullshit. Our pretext and excuse that such films—as they incorporate thematic tropes recognizably reflexive with respect to film history—offer meta-critiques upon representation of the violent action is used to justify the fact that we like to see the violent act represented. A lot.

     More than anything, The Act of Killing effectively relays Hollywood’s international situation and the genuine importance of this fact. There has always been an idea that the West must be careful in the way that it represents itself to itself through media, as this is also the way that it represents itself to others. There is, however, a larger ethico-aesthetic question ignored in this formulation. The West must be careful in the way that it self-represents, because, in the same way that a hapless Generation X’er comes to think of herself as more Carrie than Samantha and lets this fact condition her behavior, an Anwar Congo can come to think of himself as a Michael Corleone. “You acted so well, but you can stop crying now,” a child actor is told. The affective texture of representation and reality are so similar that lines become blurred in both directions. What Oppenheimer does most successfully is challenge the anemic argument of something’s being “merely entertainment” or “just a movie,” creating in his work a document of high aesthetic value with very immediate political force.