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Empathy is an essential tool in mediation, both for the mediator and hopefully a quality the participants develop as well. Mediators recognize, unless we want to act purely as evaluators (and even then the capacity for empathy is still important), that we need to try to empathize with the needs and feelings of both sides in every case, to build trust and encourage understanding. But sometimes the actions of parties to a dispute seem so foreign or even repugnant to our own values that we find it difficult to empathize. And when we can’t empathize, we tend to distance ourselves and condemn. Are there limits to the capacity to empathize? Are there actions so beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior that it would be almost immoral to empathize? According to a remarkable documentary I saw this past weekend, the answer to those questions would appear to be “no.”

The Act of Killing takes as its subject the gangsters and paramilitary organizations used by the Indonesian government to kill perhaps a million supposed opponents of the regime after the country’s military coup in 1965. There has been some democratization in Indonesia since that time, but the people who carried out these actions are still protected by the government, and can brag about these actions with impunity. The government’s continued protection of these killers makes it difficult to achieve the kind of reconciliation that can sometimes be obtained by war crimes tribunals or memorials or compensation to victims. Because the government still supports the bad guys, the families of the victims of the purge still live in fear. So much fear that the filmmakers discovered they could not use the victims’ families in their film at all. Therefore they made the decision to make a different kind of film, told from the point of view of the killers. They were somewhat surprised to find that these gangsters and leaders of paramilitary organizations involved in the 1965 killings were quite willing to cooperate.

One thing that makes the documentary unique is that its “stars,” in addition to talking about their actions, were asked to re-enact them for the camera, as if they were making a movie depicting their methods of killing and torture. There was no trickery involved. No hidden cameras. The actors fully understood that they were being filmed for a documentary in which they were pretending to make a movie showing what they had done more than 40 years ago. They dyed their hair to look younger; they dressed up in gangster clothes; they took the filmmakers to some of the places where they had engaged in torture and killings; they demonstrated how they used wires to slit their victims’ throats; they enlisted villagers to demonstrate how they dragged women and children from their homes. Some of these scenes are almost comical; others are harrowing. For the most part, the perpetrators are not embarrassed to give matter-of-fact descriptions of torture and killing they committed.

What makes the film even more unique is that it does not allow the audience the easy escape of simply condemning the killers as evil. Instead it treats them with genuine empathy. The film’s point of view moves beyond typical depictions of such events as battles between good and evil, and instead forces us to recognize the essential humanity even of people who carried out despicable and horrible crimes. We need to understand that these crimes were committed by people, not by some sort of demons.

The film focuses in particular on one character, a gangster named Anwar Congo. Like others, Congo at first expresses no remorse for his actions. Since the killings were sanctioned by the government, and no one is being punished for them, he can make the argument that he has done nothing wrong. As the movie goes on, however, it becomes clear that at a deeper level, he realizes that what he has done is wrong. At one point Congo agrees to play a victim of torture being performed by others, and says after doing the scene that he understands how his own victims must have felt. The filmmakers do not let him off that easily, reminding him that he was only pretending to be tortured, while for his victims the torture was real. By the end of the movie, Congo is actually retching, physically sickened by his appreciation of the horror of his own actions.

Taking the point of view of people who committed horrific crimes in no way justifies these actions. Allowing these criminals to tell their own story instead causes at least some of them to condemn themselves, and may help victims’ families viewing the film to achieve a degree of peace. We see how important re-enactment, a tool that is used in court proceedings and in mediation, is to achieving resolution of conflict. The film also proves that there are no limits to the type of behavior that can be treated with empathy. And how effective empathy is as a technique to bring about understanding and potentially reconciliation.


Joe Markowitz

Joseph C. Markowitz has over 30 years of experience as a business trial lawyer.  He has represented clients ranging from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations.  He started practicing with a boutique litigation firm in New York City, then was a partner in a large international firm both… MORE >

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