freedom, control, and the act of (mass) killing

On December 15, South Sudan’s presidential guard began shooting. South Sudanese officials loyal to President Salva Kiir exited a late-afternoon meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country’s ruling party; hours later, elite soldiers entered communities nearby. Survivor testimonies, compiled by Human Rights Watch, describe the melee. “I stopped to pick [up] my son but he was heavy and dead,” said one Juba bricklayer.

Throughout the history of mass violence, uncounted fathers have stopped to pick up their sons, only to find them heavy. Picking up the dead, especially the familiar dead, is the most immediate, intimate act of remembrance. Memories of violence pass through osmosis; the physical gap between past life and present death, just previously the sole territory of the dead, closes. After the dead are retrieved, mass death is public, known. The act of killing–who is responsible, and why they killed–however, remains little more than an imagined truth.

The mystery of mass violence is, of course, the central question of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, the play-within-a-play-qua-documentary about the ringleaders of an Indonesian militia under the murderous, repressive Suharto regime. That question reappears, perhaps more subtly, in 12 Years a Slave, the cinematic retelling of Solomon Northup’s liberation from antebellum slavery. In tandem, the two reveal the layered relationship between memory and the politics of control, separately and together, and responsibility for mass violence.

Joshua Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing, is not its central storyteller. Anwar Congo, the head gangster of a former Indonesian death squad, claims that role, alongside several others: documentarian, performer, memorialist, memorialized. The film introduces Anwar and his cohort during their first local casting call for a dramatic commemoration of Indonesia’s mass violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of Anwar’s fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. Of course, they were never countrymen of Anwar’s, nor of the sprawling paramilitary organization to which Anwar still belongs. They were killed, by Anwar’s militia and similar ones, as communists and dissidents and civilians and terrorists and opposition leaders and insurgents, even if they died as humans.

Whether the militia’s fictive victims are also humans, as opposed to communists, is unclear. The humanity of their mass murderers exits repeatedly, like the comic relief in a poorly-scripted Beckett play. In one scene, Anwar’s cohort acknowledges their collective crimes. “The key,” one starts, “is to find a way not to feel guilty, find the right excuse.” In contemporary Indonesia, as in its past, guiltlessness is a simple task. Many beneficiaries of Suharto’s regime herald the survival of Indonesia’s gangster culture, of which Anwar is an archetype. Officially, an Indonesian gangster is a “free man”–a human, living among communists.

At first, a gangster’s freedom is an impression, an act of cultural mimicry: aggressive pastels, based loosely on Fredo Corleone’s wardrobe; across town, fascistic rallies where slouching (but patriotic) militiamen chew on dwindling cigarette butts. The scale and consequence of Anwar’s freedom, however, comes quickly into view. As young gangsters, Anwar and his militia stood outside the local movie theater most nights, scalping tickets and harassing passerby; one recalls Malcolm X’s description, in his autobiography, of Harlem’s gangsters, or the youthful rabble of an S.E. Hinton novel. But Anwar’s freedom was no such casual nuisance. After their quick fun, his crew exited the street, and ascended a ramshackle citadel of rudimentary terror. There, they interrogated and often killed Indonesia’s most wanted. These actions occurred at the state’s behest, but far beyond its control.

Solomon Northup’s story is about a different freedom, and a very different violence. Unusually, Solomon was born a free man, and became a literate member of the Saratoga Springs, NY, educated class. One weekend, while his wife and children are out of town, two hucksters invite Solomon, a proficient violinist, to Washington, DC, a frequent cross-roads for the domestic U.S. slave trade. After a night of drinking, Solomon awakes in a dungeon cell, visibly enslaved. He remains in chains, physically and figuratively, for the ensuing majority of the movie, until a court order grants his freedom.

If Solomon sketches his own slow, terrible crawl from slavery, his story also describes the disparate freedom of those around him. Freedom is an imperfect privilege–in the antebellum United States, as elsewhere, the freest humans are always bound to someone by fealty or debt or, among the less free, weaker chains. Early in the movie, Solomon’s well-spoken companion Clemens Ray is released in the New Orleans port, from which Solomon will travel inland. Despite his release, Clemens is in debt: “Ironically,” John Ridley’s scripted stage directions read, “his master now represents ‘freedom.'”

Solomon’s drivers are also free, often at the expense of their slaves. Solomon’s first encounter with the slave plantation’s regular cruelty, Tibeats, is an aggressive overseer with unusual control over the disciplinary affairs of Ford’s plantation. Tibeats is a feeble character, physically meek and psychologically unstable. After Solomon reciprocates Tibeats’ violent provocations, the overseer corrals a lynch mob–he cannot punish Solomon single-handedly. Ford, the plantation master, repays Solomon’s previous obedience with generous mercy, though barely enough to protect his slave.

The episode is an ugly waltz of violent control, between Ford’s repression and Tibeats’ quick, brutal rage. Their dance, a brief sliver of Solomon’s suffering, is a synecdoche of slavery’s slow, massive violence. When the system worked, its slaves suffered, though always at their master’s hand; when it withered, its masters beat and murdered and starved and tortured their victims at overwhelming scale. Though we remember slavery as an institution of totalitarian control, its worst abuses occurred under Tibeats, not Ford–that is, where control was weakest. Solomon’s later masters mimic Tibeats’ cowardly violence amid the anarchic authority in which that violence thrives: the cotton farmer, Edwin Epps, whips Patsey’s crumbling body, a rightly spiteful target of his sexual desire; or, Mary, Epps’ wife, who subjects Patsey to a jealous, tyrannical cruelty. Of course, the untold epilogue of Solomon’s story–the American Civil War–is also the indirect consequence of slavery’s weakening hold.

The dilemma of control sharpens the two films’ divergent understanding of who is responsible for mass violence, and how that responsibility shapes our memory of its event. Just as Solomon’s violence is a small lens into slavery’s greater toils, so too are Anwar’s gangsters a microcosm of Indonesia’s rapid mass atrocity. In the movie’s opening credits, Oppenheimer quotes the quantitative range of violence–one million dead. One understands that this one million, like the Holocaust’s six, is an unfathomable number, and that Anwar’s story grants subtle texture to its massive scale. The movie, however, is as much about avoiding responsibility as 12 Years a Slave is about claiming it. Anwar’s true victims are anonymous ghosts of a suppressed past; his actors, meanwhile, exist out of space and time–except for the viewer’s foreknowledge, the fictive victims might as well be civilians in Cambodia, under the insurgents of the Khmer Rouge, or at My Lai, under U.S. Army Company C. In Indonesia, many were killed; Anwar’s victims, however, are countless and unknown.

As the act of killing concludes, Anwar retches. He retches into the trough, and against the bullet-pocked concrete column, and onto the dusty floor, stained by deep-crimson memories of Indonesia’s retold death. In between heaves, he picks up a ragged canvas sack. This was the sack, he sighs, with which his gangster squad discarded “the human beings we killed.” He returns to his retching spot, where they died.

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