The true nature of evil is the subject of Arthur Dong’s documentary Licensed to Kill, which explores the motivations of men who attack and kill homosexuals. As screened to a receptive crowd in Bronfman Auditorium on Sunday night, Dong’s provocative film offered no easy answers to the problem of homosexual hate crimes. Instead, the film portrays the men responsible for these acts as complex individuals: some repentant, others remorseless, but all worthy of in-depth investigation. As a result, Dong’s film poses many interesting questions about the nature of violence and homophobia in modern America.
The film was sponsored on campus by the Dively Committee and AASIA. Dong was present to speak to the audience after the film. He explained how he had become a self-made expert” in the field of homosexual hate crimes after being attacked three separate times, the first time in 1977. After following countless news stories about such crimes, in 1995 he decided to confront the problem directly. His method was to interview a number of convicted murderers in prison.
Licensed to Kill features interviews and police footage of seven men, all convicted of murder, all related by their fear and loathing of homosexuals. The men are all surprisingly open about their crimes; some even laugh and joke about what they did, appearing to not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Others blame their deeds on past trauma, two saying they had been molested by homosexuals as children. Most significantly, though, is that all of the men are complex individuals. None of their crimes were based on simple hatred but rather on complicated strings of events.
In contrast with the grim and painful material of his film, Arthur Dong himself is a witty and articulate man. After the film, he spoke at length about his filmmaking work. In particular, Dong revealed how he chose to let his subjects speak for themselves as much as possible, to tell their own stories in their own words. The interviews are all fairly casual and confessional. Dong wisely did not try to provoke the men or force them to talk about things they did not want to talk about. Because of this strategy, their stories have a spontaneous, unforced feel that makes the brutality of their deeds even more shocking.
The film shows little about the lives of the murder victims, showing instead police photos of bodies and pictures of the people in life, accompanied by their names and ages when killed. For Dong’s purposes, this is highly appropriate; his film is not about the murders themselves as much as it is about the motivations and social factors leading up to the acts of violence. One man, an army sergeant, killed out of anger at President Clinton’s policies regarding homosexuals in the military. Another, gay but full of self-loathing, killed after contracting HIV. A third attacked gays for money and escalated into murder.
It is to Dong’s credit that he realizes that his film, probing that it is, is still reductive. However, his goal in making Licensed to Kill was not to provide answers, but to avoid simplistic resolutions, to leave questions unanswered.
What is ultimately most shocking about the killers in Licensed to Kill is how ordinary they are. These men, while having done monstrous things, look like anyone you might see on the street, walking or shopping. By showing how murder and horror can arise out of simple ignorance and fear, Arthur Dong has provided a chilling glimpse into the everyday banality of evil, showing how unextraordinary people can go over the edge.