Homelands & Exiles
Translated from the Croatian by David Williams

Why We Love Ape Movies


Dubravka Ugrešić

1. Dentures

Ratko Mladić is a Serbian general accused of wartime atrocities in Bosnia, of masterminding the Srebenica genocide, where almost ten thousand Bosnian Muslims were murdered. In late-January 2014, Mladić appeared as a witness at the trial of Radovan Karadžić. He used the opportunity to denounce the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague as “satanic”; to make known that he “deplores and doesn’t recognize” it; and to declare that it is “not important whether one is acquitted” but rather “the mark one leaves behind in one’s people and history.”

And while the above might come across as the testimony of a retard, with a single pithy rejoinder —“Can security please bring my teeth”—Mladić, requesting his dentures so he could talk properly, gave notice that he was running this show.

The denture gag was confirmation that Mladić is fully conscious not only of his own crimes, but also the effect of his affectations. With recourse to ridicule, this was an attempt to obliterate the gravity of the Srebrenica genocide and simultaneously pay his disrespects to an international court. Even in such “inhospitable” circumstances, Mladić retains his fantasies of humiliating and denigrating his opponent. He is the writer, director, and actor in a C grade theatrical skit, his denture request the semantic equivalent of breaking wind or urinating in front of the assembled judges, courtroom, and indeed public at large. Given the moral and emotional reception standards of the majority of media consumers, Ratko Mladić could well go down in popular memory as a toothless “funnyman,” rather than the impresario responsble for the horrors of Srebrenica. And that is exactly what he’s counting on.

Like all those accused of war crimes, Mladić stubbornly maintains his innocence, which in turn prompts an unavoidable question: does the clownish deafness of Ratko Mladić differ from the pervasive deafness of the democratically-elected political and economic elites of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia? These elites, admittedly, don’t massacre innocent civilians, they just turn off the oxygen. Having cheerfully avoided prison, many of the elite have become wealthy folk. A little murder here, a little racketeering and extortion there, many have held high office, and many remain there to this day. Apropos justice and guilt, every society sets its own standards, rejecting their imposition from without.

Serbian radical Vojislav Šešelj is one of the more malevolent “funnymen” of the post-Yugoslav era. His antics at the Hague tribunal fill endless hard drives: Šešelj threatening (in a leaf out of Mladić’s playbook) not to testify unless his dental needs are attended to; showing the courtoom gallery public the crappy food “jailbirds” are served up; abusing the judge (“You’re a filthy douchebag, and I’m a Chetnik Duke”), cussing and belittling the authority of the court.

And Radovan Karadžić, he’s an actor too; he played himself in Pawel Pawlikowski’s magisterial documentary Serbian Epics (1992), launching his nomination for future Hague resident rather early. Throughout his years of hiding, camouflage, and identity fraud, to the final denouement of his arrest, Karadžić has long proved his directorial, dramaturgical, and acting prowess. Karadžić is a psychiatrist, a poet (Under the Left Breast of the Century the spectacular title of his most recent offering), and former leader of the Bosnian Serbs. In the years he spent on the run, Karadžić had a Croatian passport under the name Petar Glumac (glumac meaning “actor” in Croatian and Serbian!), and, as the story goes, was once questioned by police in Austria on an unrelated matter. His performance was so utterly relaxed they let him go. Sometime later he was arrested and finally extradited to the Hague tribunal, but now as a third person, as Dr. Dragan David Dabić, an alternative medicine guru, a self-designed Gandalf. All three persons, Karadžić, Glumac, Dabić, are presently in The Hague.

The entire history of the Yugoslav disintegration is a quarter-century theater of cruelty; its repertoire thousands upon thousands of “goofy” skits that send shivers down the spine. In wartime Vukovar photographer Ron Haviv captured an infamous portrait of two Serbian killers, one wearing a Chetnik cap and bushy Chetnik beard, the other, younger, completely unmistakable as Alex from Clockwork Orange, top hat and fox hide draped around his neck. We affected by the Yugoslav wars have been spectators in this theater for a quarter of a century, witnesses to, and participants in, the theatricalization of crime, the theatricalization of the non-concession of guilt, the theatrical birth of new national “heroes.” We’ve managed to convince ourselves that the curtain has been lowered, that the dark performance is over, the theater locked up, that we’ve long since returned to our homes. Yet sudden little episodes, Mladić and his dentures, Croatia rolling out the red carpet for the homecoming of Dario Kordić, who had served his Hague time for the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, remind us soon enough of the fact that the performance is ongoing, that the actors are alive and kicking, and that what’s more, they still have their faithful devotees and fans—and that this is a performance with no end in sight.

And most terrifying of all is that every single one of us, as in every solid S&M relationship, has grown accustomed to our daily dose of humiliation. Over a period of time we’ve lost our speech, sight, hearing, and common sense; we’ve become dehumanized. Because over this same period of time, we spectators have also become “theatricalized.” Through a fine haze we recognize ourselves only in performances that happen to other people, those in distant geographic and temporal zones, where people speak some other language. Hold on—is that us? we wonder, and forget everything anew…

2. The Act of Killing

Anwar Congo is the main protagonist of the documentary The Act of Killing (2012; directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christina Cynn, and an anonymous Indonesian), and like Ratko Mladić, is a killer with a problem with his dental prosthesis. Perhaps Congo’s narcissistic obsession with his dental prosthesis, which he pops in and out throughout the film, makes him seem more human. Perhaps it’s the reverse. Perhaps this detail is but a subtle directorial manipulation conceived to unsettle viewers. In a given moment a viewer might feel a creeping sense of revulsion that he or she has all too easily navigated the rivers of blood—whilst remaining doggedly disgusted by Congo’s prosthesis.

The Act of Killing is a documentary masterpiece. In memory, many viewers will mistake the title as The Art of Killing, yet in many ways they won’t be far wrong.

In an attempt to stir the viewer’s moribund moral sensitivity, the directors give Congo free license to shoot a film about himself and his crimes. In the main, the film is propelled by the amateur theatricalization of crime—from the killer’s perspective, of course. The executions recreated in the film took place in the Indonesia of the mid-sixties, in the time of Suharto’s rule, when an estimated three million people were killed in anti-communist pogroms. Anwar Congo claims that he personally killed a thousand people. The majority of the executions were committed by self-declared and self-styled “gangsters,” which they mistakenly claim to mean “free man” in English. (“Preman,” an Indonesian word for gangster derives from the Dutch “vrijman,” which does indeed mean “free man.”) The executions were inevitably accompanied by pillage. The executors would first rob their “communist” victim and then dispose of him or her. No one has ever been held to account for these crimes. The rightwing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) emerged from the anti-communist death squads, and today boasts a membership of more than three million. Its members’ sworn duty is to be “servants of the nation,” brothers-in-arms against neo-communists and leftists. In a speech to these “gangsters,” Jusuf Kalla, Indonesian vice president at the time of filming, declares: “This nation needs free men. We need gangsters to get things done.”

Together with Anwar Congo, The Act of Killing presents a colourful cast of killers. At the time, the killers were no rogue or random troupe, but a parallel hand of the regime, and indeed, many hands were involved. Ibrahim Sinik, a newspaper owner, didn’t roll up his sleeves, he just compiled lists of those for execution (“Why would I get my hands dirty?! A wink of my eye and they were dead!”). And while some killed for small change and dapper threads in which to hit the town, others killed to acquire real wealth and become “businessmen”; others had eyes on political office. Adi Zulkadry, Congo’s peer and fellow killer, agrees to act in Congo’s psychodrama. “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse,” Adi counsels and consoles Congo. To a journalist seeking comment on his crimes, Adi responds: “War crimes are defined by winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition. I don’t need to follow the international definitions. And more important, not everything true is good (…) we shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut their heads. We ran over them with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished (…) I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

There’s a scene near the end of the film where Congo forces his two young grandsons to watch a scene he’s just shot. In the scene Congo swaps his normal role as tormentor for that of victim. As his amateur acting pals interrogate and play at brutally beating him, Congo points to the screen exclaiming “This is your granddad,” seemingly distressed as grandsons look on.

  1. Jihadists prefer Nutella

If one hunkers down under image bombardment—as I did in the summer of 2014, exposed to images from Serbian Epics, of Radovan Karadžić and Bosnian Serbs training their mortars on Sarajevo, images from The Act of Killing, of Indonesian “gangsters” who in the 1960s cleansed Indonesia of more than three million “communists,” and images from the Internet, of fledgling Isis jihadists—it almost becomes a game of spot the difference. I allow that I perhaps don’t spot the differences because I’m a woman. The killers, namely, are all men.

Irrespective of age, race, faith, geography, and self-definition—all killers publically pledge their devotion to God (some, like the jihadists, are divine emissaries) and their leaders. Isis jihadists love Allah and his caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The world of killers is a world of men calling upon their gods. Serbian Epics masterfully captures a male brotherhood sustained by the smoke of icon lamps, priests, and the kissing of altars, the harking back to a glorious martial past (one that never was), the extolling of traditional values, and the conversion of non-believers. All killers seek spiritual vindication for future crimes: all kill for God and in God’s name, for their people in their people’s name. “God hates communists,” says a rightwing Indonesian politician in his address to young “gangsters.” Every killer’s gear bag contains a knife sheathed in a little ideology.

The killer’s world is a world without women (who are absent objects of hatred and disrespect). It is a world of propinquity among men, the passing down of experience and knowledge from “fathers” to “sons.” In the documentary material before me I register the understanding and bonhomie among the Serbian soldiers, the loyalty and propinquity among the Indonesian killers (their massaging each other, their boozed singing, their quiet conversations), the calm of the jihadists bathing together in the Tigris.

Killers love themselves most of all. Their self-love knows no bounds. “Stupidity is in love with itself and its self-love is boundless,” wrote Miroslav Krleža. Therein resides the power of stupidity. Therein, in self-love, lies the power of the killer.

At one point, Anwar Congo says: “It was like… we were killing happily.” A fellow gangster summarizes the point of killing more succinctly: “Relax and Rolex.” In other words, killing brings both contentment and monetary gain—just keep calm and carry on.

Killers have all got mobile phones, or at least the jihadists have. Not because they like technology more than Ratko Mladić, it’s just that technology has come on in the intervening time. Killers know they’re among their own when surrounded by other men, when they’re all bearing arms and—mobile phones. It’s not that they need to call each other all the time; a mobile phone is more about Internet access, so they can upload selfies, Kalashnikovs and Nutella in hand (jihadists love Nutella!); so they can upload photos in which they’re surrounded by the heads they’ve decapitated; photos in which they brandish lethal swords and machetes; clips of iron fences on which they’ve impaled the heads they’ve decapitated; snapshots of the victims they’ve stretched out on the cross. Thanks to technology the killers’ crimes are there for all to see. A killer’s power lies in self-love. New technology and self-love go hand-in-hand. The new killers are mutants, a new, emboldened species. The audience for their content is extraordinarily wide. This audience itself produces millions of selfies, firing them out from all points of the globe. Among them are the kids who send selfies with the homeless they’ve just beaten on the streets of their cities, the little girls they’ve just molested… Among them are the kids who send happy selfies from educational excursions to Auschwitz. They’re all directors in miniature theaters of cruelty, all devoted to the theatricalization of their exciting everyday.

The theatricalization of evil is set to get richer, more effective and affective. The Isis clip of American journalist James Foley is a case in point. Foley is clothed in an orange tunic, beside him stands a jihadist in black, knife in hand. The journalist reads first, addressing his family and America, and then it’s the jihadist’s turn. Both men are amateur actors. A second or so later the unfortunate journalist will have his head cut off. In the very near future the jihadist’s theater of cruelty will offer more skilled direction, scenography, and costuming. There is no shame left in this world.

Anwar Congo is particularly fond of a scene from his movie that shows the washing away of sin. A waterfall symbolically washes away all blood and guilt, Indonesian beauties dance seductive angelic dances, and a victim drapes a rather chunky gold medal around Congo’s neck and says: “For executing me and sending me to heaven I thank you a thousand times.” Congo is irreducibly proud of his creation. “I never imagined I could make something so great. One thing that makes me so proud—is how the waterfall expresses such deep feelings.”

4. Thank you

And when someone such as myself, who has followed the war in the former Yugoslavia so closely, thinks about the victim’s words they can only seem reasonable, normal. At least to my ears, the line rang out as the only normal sentence in the film. Because the complete sentence of an imagined victim might well go something like this:

Thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven, because if you hadn’t, I’d have had to keep looking at your depraved snouts, which have burrowed into every tract of the country—here, there, everywhere, your snouts are all the same, your species is invasive, inviolable as a snake’s head, your mentality the same, it’s as if you were all made in the same factory. For killing me and sending me to heaven I thank you a thousand times, because otherwise I’d have had to look at your faces beaming out from everywhere—from screens, newspapers, from iPads, iPhones, from the Internet, even bookstore windows—you’ve usurped every last millimeter of public space, you’re as resistant as a super weed, you spring up everywhere, there’s no getting rid of you, you’ve taken root in every pore, in our nostrils, in the air we breathe, the water we drink… For decapitating me and sending me to heaven I thank you, because if you hadn’t, I might have borne children: a boy who could have grown into a murderer like you, a little girl you would’ve raped on sight and then molded to your standards, yours, your sons’, or those of someone like you. So indeed, for garroting me with a piece of wire and sending me to heaven I thank you, because otherwise I’d have had to read news reports about what you’re reading this summer, where you’re vacationing, the kind of yacht you own, what you think about this or about that, how you would solve this problem or that; because otherwise I’d have been forced to see your real estate holdings in the papers or on a computer screen, your private zoological gardens, your stuffed animals and the decapitated stags heads that look down from the walls of your holiday homes (in the Sumatran jungle, on the green hills of Serbia and Croatia, on Iraqi oil fields). For firing a bullet into the nape of my neck and sending me to heaven I thank you indeed, because if you hadn’t, I’d have had to look at your art collections, the bounty from which your victims’ blood seeps; I’d have had to read the memoirs by which your descendants are supposed to remember you, to everywhere witness the mark you left in “your people and its history,” because that’s what you care about most, your mark in history, a mark for which you weren’t fussy about your means, for which you’ll go down in fucking history alright, one way or another… For executing me and sending me to heaven I thank you a thousand times, because if you hadn’t, I’d have had to watch the opening of your exhibition (oh yeah, you’ve started painting, you couldn’t wait to get out of prison and start painting!), your book promotion (oh yes, you’ve been doing some writing too, for your grandson, of course, to leave your little “mark”). For plunging a knife into me and sending me to heaven I thank you, because if you hadn’t, I’d still be having to look into a horizon slimed with your criss-crossing tentacles, because you’re a giant octopus, your power is in your tentacles, cut one off and a new one grows. So indeed, for killing me and sending me to heaven I thank you, because if you hadn’t, on a daily basis I would’ve had to confront not only the banality of your evil (not hard to deal with that!), but your terrifying vitality.

5. Ape not kill ape

And when nothing else helps, when the brain functions no more, when one again ends up banging one’s head against the wall of that same prosaic question for which there is never any answer—how, namely, is this all possible, and how can it all repeat itself at ever decreasing intervals?—then, like a dry sponge, this same brain will soak up an answer wherever it can. Among other things, perhaps this explains the human fascination with ape movies. A whole heap of fascinations come and go, but the human fascination with apes endures.

From a psychological perspective, the telling detail (which I deduced by testing friends) is that when most people hear the word ape (a humanoid, a monkey without a tail) they think of a male. Although images of female apes abound (breastfeeding, nursing, cuddling their young), in our human imaginary, the word ape is strongly gendered—an ape is, sorry, almost always a guy! Maybe it’s because the organizational principles of ape communities—defense, rivalry, combat, and leadership—are exclusively associated with the male species. And maybe it’s because women are preoccupied with other worries that they often remain invisible in the world of men, be it human or animal.

Apes are our (masculine!) image in the mirror, our archetypal self. We’re fascinated by them not because they’re similar to us, but because we’re similar to them. They’re our cathartic mirror, which is why we love them, they’re the answer to the question we seek whilst banging our heads against impenetrable walls.

If you did a survey only with male participants and asked them to choose the scientific world’s brightest (female) star, I’m convinced that the effervescent Jane Goodall would win. Even men who don’t have a clue what anthropology is would vote for her. Why? Because Jane Goodall isn’t just an expert on apes, she’s an expert on that hulking hirsute creature with sad eyes that sleeps in every man. Like it or not, Jane is every man’s dream girl: she’s Tarzan’s Jane; and she’s Ann Darrow too, a miniature doll, something out of a kinder surprise, still blissfully unaware that she’s the deadly bullet that will, in the end, fell King Kong. She understands his wild and deeply sensitive nature, she knows that his “wild side” is natural, honest, and uncorrupted. Only civilization can be hypocritical. Civilization is crueler than nature. And this, among other things, explains why Lord Greystoke, half ape, half nobleman, eventually opts for his ape half. In other words, like it or not, Jane Goodall serves as a kind of alibi for an iconic masculinity, one in which killing is an integral part.

Like every fairytale, the latest installment in popular culture’s most well-loved ape saga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is imbued with various semantic implications. An ideological reading draws immediate attention to the name Koba, which was Stalin’s nickname (although admittedly, it’s also the name of a species of African ape, while Senegal is home to the Niokolo-Koba National Park). Koba’s one-liners, such as—“Humans, you ape prisoner! Now you will know life in cage!” are met with delight in cinemas the world over. Having realized that the aggressive Koba will destroy both humans and apes and that he needs to be physically vanquished—because “apes always seek strongest branch,” Caesar, the “rational” monkey, overcomes the “wild” Koba. (Incidentally, there’s another connective dental detail here: we can tell Koba from the other apes by his dangerously pronounced canine teeth!)

“Ape not kill ape,” says the defeated Koba, trying to trick Caesar in a last act of cunning, reminding him of the mantra under which he united and emancipated the ape community. After a long silence, with viewers’ hearts pounding in their chests, the fear encroaching that Caesar might take the side of his ape brother, Caesar delivers Koba his death sentence: “You are not ape.”