“It’s human nature.” Do we have a cliché more glib?
We usually trot out the phrase to explain why bad things happen, why sensible ideas like equality, peace, ecological balance, human rights and various forms of freedom can be written off as “utopian”.
So what do we understand by ‘human nature’? Is it always synonymous with greed, cruelty, selfish materialism, violence, corruption? And if so, how can we begin to dismantle those qualities, how do we challenge them and what can we offer in their place?
Sometimes you have to go to the heart of darkness to understand the light.
I have recently watched a pair of documentary films that I would like to commend to you.
They are both directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. The first is The Act of Killing.
In a most extraordinary way it examines the genocidal events in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966 when a million people were murdered by fascistic death squads and paramilitary groups backed by the USA. This led to the establishment of a military dictatorship and a line of authoritarian power that still rules today.
The victims were mainly suspected communists, minority ethnic groups, and poor peasants who had stood up against local warlords. The eyes of the world were focused on Vietnam and the Indonesian story only emerged much later on.
Oppenheimer spent many years in the country revisiting the massacres through interviews with some of the surviving perpetrators. If you have ever wondered about the impact of torture and murder on the human beings who have done such things, The Act of Killing provides unique and riveting answers.
These criminals are often now in positions of power. It is a testimony to Oppenheimer’s skills and dedication that he manages to get them to re-visit their crimes.
Seldom has a film penetrated so far into the heart of darkness and come back with such a complex but utterly compelling psychological document.
The companion piece is The Look of Silence. This follows an optician whose brother was a victim of the brutal terror.
This very brave man visits gangster graduates of the death squads who are now in powerful positions in their communities. He speaks directly to some of the men who put his brother to death in the most unspeakable ways.
Some of the most moving moments are when he reports back to his magnificently intelligent mother and dying father.
The optician and his family have been moved to another part of Indonesia for their own safety, something they knew would happen as a consequence of the film’s international success. Oppenheimer’s films have also galvanised a strongly supportive reaction amongst many Indonesians, especially in the younger generation.
Something of the ‘light’ in human nature,as opposed to the darkness, can be seen in the face of the optician, as well as in the mighty courage of his actions. Oppenheimer’s intelligence and humanism shine through as well. You will inevitably have to watch the films on dvd and I would urge you to watch the accompanying interviews and Q & A session as well. It refreshes the soul as to the possibilities of film.
I don’t want to say any more, just repeat a wholehearted recommendation. I am still processing and trying to integrate some of the revelations, some of the depictions, some of the words spoken, and some of the faces.