Film Review: “The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a film that Werner Herzog called “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is remarkable because its subjects are men with the blood of thousands on their hands, invited to re-imagine their crimes onscreen. The three, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto, do so gleefully. Aping the styles of film noir thrillers, westerns, and musicals; the group recreates war crimes they committed in 1965-66, following Suharto’s coup in Indonesia. The unique nature of the film is partially visual: the setpieces they stage are often dreamlike, in stark contrast with the horrors being recreated. More shocking than the surreal imagery, though, is the way that the killers boast with impunity about their acts. They move about their milieu and speak about their crimes freely, and this is what makes The Act of Killing such a shocking film. A society’s embrace of war inverts the moral order: it makes criminals into heroes, it renders victims nonexistent, and it supplants reality with propaganda, lies and mythology. The decision to let war criminals to go unpunished makes this inversion permanent and systemic. The Act of Killing is unique because it illustrates these realities by rendering the abstract visceral.


First as tragedy, then as elaborate Hollywood-style production.

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Japan’s Haunted Pop-Culture Courts

I’ve noticed a strange pop culture trope unique to Japan (“just one?”) and it’s made me think. Why isn’t more ghost-delivered evidence admissable in court? I’ve realized that in Japan’s fictional courtrooms, testimony delivered by channeling is acceptable. At what point in Japanese pop-cultural history did ghost-testimony become a decisive part of their judicial system?  Continue reading

A Moment in American Homonationalism

Sometimes an academic concept finds embodiment in a way that renders a complex idea instantly clear. What Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism” is one of these complex, intersectional ideas that was illustrated explicitly in recent headlines about a participant in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The recent transition of SEAL Team 6 member Kristin Beck from male to female received brief media coverage, but is incredibly illuminating and worthy of analysis. The story is situated around a former DEVGRU operator who is a both a member of the most-targeted queer community and assassin of the world’s most-hated terrorist. After 20 years in the SEALs, including a role in Operation Neptune Spear, Kristin retired from the Navy and transitioned in 2011. She released her book, Warrior Princess, in June of 2013, and news outlets immediately began speculating that Kristin’s coming-out could prompt a review of the ban on openly transgender members of the military. Any trans person’s coming-out is cause for celebration, but a story like this is also cause for analysis. The narrative around this story reveals a great deal about America’s ideological underpinnings and national narratives in the War on Terror. Continue reading

The Mysteries of Deep States

Following the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the New York Times has reported that a “miraculous” restoration of civil services hints at an intentional campaign to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Times writes:

As the interim government struggles to unite a divided nation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s supporters say the sudden turnaround proves that their opponents conspired to make Mr. Morsi fail. Not only did police officers seem to disappear, but the state agencies responsible for providing electricity and ensuring gas supplies failed so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.

“This was preparing for the coup,” said Naser el-Farash, who served as the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Mr. Morsi. “Different circles in the state, from the storage facilities to the cars that transport petrol products to the gas stations, all participated in creating the crisis.”

Despite coming to power through the freest elections in Egyptian history, Mr. Morsi was unable to extend his authority over the sprawling state apparatus, and his allies complained that what they called the “deep state” was undermining their efforts at governing.

The Times presents compelling evidence that behind-the-scenes in Egypt, bureaucrats and private factions acted in concert to undermine the basic functions of government, with the aim of fomenting public support for the military coup which ended up ousting Morsi. The “deep state” is inextricably embedded within the structures of government and willing to undermine civilian rule in order to protect its interests. A deep state with this makeup has disturbing ramifications: an amorphous, undemocratic shadow government will harm, terrorize and deprive the citizens it ostensibly serves if it perceives its interests to be threatened. It’s one of those ideas that we as Americans would prefer to think happens in Those Countries Over There™. However, there are parallels to a chilling series of reports from early in Barack Obama’s presidency that hints at the power and depth of America’s own deep state. Continue reading