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How Does "The Zone of Interest" Highlight the Banality and Indifference of Oppressors?

Jonathan Glazer’s art house Oscar nominee, “The Zone of Interest” has cemented itself on many of last year’s best of lists. The film's harrowing depiction of the banality and indifference of oppressors who carry on life on the outskirts of the violently oppressed has become a staple of conversation during the 2024 awards season. In the film, there is a moment that directly correlates to the equally powerful documentary “The Act of Killing” which could be argued as a foreshadowing companion piece. The film offers insight into the cognitive dissonance utilized by the perpetrators who rationalize violence their acts of violence that they are empowered to use by leaders with nefarious intentions.

“There are people like me all over the world.”

Self-proclaimed “gangster” and Indonesian mass murderer, Anwar Congo, shares this insight while on set re-enacting one of his many murders of Indonesian citizens' who were labeled communist by the reigning regime. And he’s right. There are people like him all over the world. They are emboldened by a system that has no compassion for human life. They are bombarded by imagery through entertainment that has the capability of promoting numbness to acts of cruelty and malfeasance. They are mentally predisposed to justifying the victimization of others by identifying themselves as victims who now have the opportunity to enact revenge on their supposed oppressors. The thought of this frightened me. It opened my eyes to what evil really is. This film, and its images, are seared into my psyche.

I was forever changed because of it. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers. During the film, you learn about a time period from 1965 to 1966, when at least 500,000 people were killed in Indonesia during a political purge. Following a failed coup, the military went on a rampage and targeted suspected communists across the country. The Act of Killing follows Congo, who was part of a notorious death squad that executed hundreds of suspected leftists. This film gives you a front-row seat to the callousness of sanctioned murder and corruption. Young men emboldened by a regime to commit heinous acts inspired by Hollywood movies and governmental institutions who turn a blind eye to their misdeeds as long as they handle the dirty work. Being behind the veil of such conspiratorial actions is in itself a psychological revelation. The undertones of the many conversations shed light on the actual people who commit the atrocities that have been sanctioned or moralized. It humanizes the Nazi, The Slave Master, or the Racist Cop.

How do you respond when you realize the monster is indeed human, and how do you empathize when you come to see them as such under the circumstances? The Act of Killing takes the time to allow the viewer to listen to the conversations of the villains (depending on what side of history your ideology lies) and allows your insight into the ideology (or lack of) that they continue to live with.

Of the many moments in the film that inspired me to really understand the humanistic ability to rationalize evil, there is a car ride with Adi Zulkadry. Adi, a fellow executioner and businessman, speaks about the possibility of being brought forward for crimes against humanity concerning his past deeds. He brazenly cites the history of America and its violent history with our natives. He also cites the biblical tale of Cain and Able, illuminating that violence has been celebrated through justification and acceptance throughout history. He reminds the interviewee that what he’s done is how things have always gotten done. And the only repercussion for calling him out will be his impending fame. Adi acknowledges that the treatment of the communists was cruel. In fact, considerably crueler than when communists were struggling for power. He knows that the documentary brings up a past that is better left forgotten. He knows that his actions are untenable. Adi maintains that he has made peace with his past.

Anwar Congo is different. He relives the glory of his hood days. He’s considered a champion and relishes the community, seeing him as a savior while he walks its streets. He has seemingly never thought about the harm he has done to the families of his victims. Nor does he show that he’s had the acumen to look at the atrocities from a wider angle. He loves the adoration at para-military events, but does he have full knowledge of what’s happening around him? Maybe not. Anwar is less complicated than Adi. Anwar thinks that what he has done is right and just. This idea opens an incredible dialogue about empathy after Anwar watches his video re-enactments (with himself playing the role of his victims) and becomes physically repulsed by his past actions. It’s a telling moment. One that we rarely get to see on film. An actual historical figure in real time coming to terms with the horrors that he contributed to, and the fear that those actions (now seen in a different light) will result in damnation of his soul.

“Have I sinned?” — Anwar Congo

The Act of Killing taught me that evil is real. That people are hurting everywhere, and that the oppression is so systemic and strong rooted, we are seemingly powerless to fight it. Right and wrong is subjective terminology. And men like Anwar and Adi are only two shades of the multitudes of personalities that can be misguided and/or weaponized to carry out the misdeeds of those whose status is deemed above the rest of us.

The film has given me the ability to look into the root cause of societal problems. We know there are mass atrocities and that people do horrible things to each other, but why? With the word “systemic” currently under attack in America, what exactly would its removal mean in the context of not only national, but global history? How do we work past the villainization of people who are taught, molded, misinformed, and weaponized to hurt others? Can we quell this?

The Act of Killing never offered answers. It wasn’t meant to. In 2014, director Joshua Oppenheimer revisited Indonesia with a documentary centered on a family who survived the genocide confronting the killer of their brother. The hurt is always searching for answers. Seldom are they offered one. My experience with The Act of Killing wasn’t about the need for answers, as I was more intrigued by the creation of the questions. Those who carry out evil for others are not granted answers either. They work for status, stability, and the reward of not being treated as those that they oppress. What and why of it all is just as much a mystery to them.

We learn to live with trauma. We carry it in some form or another for the entirety of our lives after its inception. The majority of us will never get the opportunity to confront the architects of our trauma. The weight of this film, its implications on humanity, and the death of so many (some falsely accused) is heavy to me. My first time watching it at the theater was the first time I walked out of a film feeling darker or burdened by what I just witnessed. It opened up a path of vulnerability and empathy for me. It gave me cause to try to see the good in everyone and pay attention to the tools and mechanisms used to keep us divided and fearful of one another. It woke me up. I’ve been paying attention ever since. Anwar Congo died in October 2019. I hope he found peace with himself.



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