“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The act of killing opens with this emblematic quote by Voltaire.
An unprecedented account of the 1965 anti-communist mass murders in Indonesia seen through the eyes of the actual killers who perpetrated them, this shocking documentary is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Since it was first released in 2012, the film has received worldwide coverage, winning a Bafta award and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best documentary.
In Indonesia The Act of Killing has helped catalyze a national debate on how this barely acknowledged genocide is perceived, marking an important step in recognizing the terror and repression on which the country’s post war history has been built.
More than for its subject matter the film’s unsettling nature lies in its unconventional approach, a controversial method that attracted both hostility and praise. Oppenheimer challenged a group of totally unrepentant executioners, now in their seventies, to re-enact their killings in the form of movie scenes and in whatever cinematic genres they wished.
The final result is a surreal film-within-a-film, in which unspeakable horror and mundane madness are thrown together, a bone-chilling journey into the banality of evil that holds up a dark mirror to modern-day Indonesia, but most significantly to humanity as a whole.
When watching the film, the first question that comes to mind is: how did Oppenheimer manage to convince these criminals to voluntarily confess their heinous crimes in front of the camera?
The answer lies in the inextricable connection between the political context of present-day Indonesia and the massacres of the 60’s.
When Indonesian president Sukarno allied himself with the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) in 1965, he was overthrown by a military coup led by General Suharto and a bloody, anti-communist purge followed. In the next year up to a million (some estimates say more than 2 millions) communists and alleged sympathisers were brutally killed. Western governments were accused of playing a significant role in orchestrating and facilitating the mass murders. The goal was to prevent the rise of the PKI, (potentially the largest communist party after China and Russia) during a very sensitive period of the Cold War. For the entire duration of Suharto’s dictatorship, which ended in 1998, and up to the present day, the justifications for the massacres have been clouded in mystery, the facts obscured by myths and propaganda.
The country’s total lack of acknowledgment is what makes the Indonesian genocide an anomaly in modern history when compared to other grave violations of human rights. Considering that the majority of people involved in the mass murders are the ones still in power, there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, nor memorials for victims. On the contrary, the establishment publicly glorifies the deaths, inviting the misinformed, and still terrified population, to celebrate the killers as national heroes.
As one of the perpetrators states in the film, “history is written by the winners. When killers win, killers become heroes.”
This is the frightening premise on which The act of killing builds upon.
When the director began researching for the film in 2001, his original intention was to interview the survivors. However, when one of them suggested he turned his camera on the perpetrators, the director discovered they were happy and even proud to speak about their involvement in the genocide. Oppenheimer takes them to the scenes of their crimes, where they talk him through their methods of slaughter and happily agree to re-enact them, sometimes playing themselves, sometimes their victims.
“I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power”
the director wrote in an article.
The core of the film consists of the reminiscences of an elderly gangster, a man named Anwar Congo.
Congo was relatively unknown when the killing started. He worked in a cinema, in Medan, North Sumatra, selling tickets for popular films. In 1965 he became one of the most feared death squad gangsters in the region, killing well over 1,000 people with his hands. Now he is hugely rich and a respected member of Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth an influential paramilitary movement that grew out of the massacre and remains active in Indonesia.
At first he appears as a cheerful old man and a loving grandfather but his gentle charm quickly fades away as he begins to recount, and then to re-enact, the brutal killings that he carried out. Anwar takes the film crew to the rooftop where he garrotted his victims with wire and a piece of wood, explaining with chilling calm and scrupulous attention for details, how he developed the most effective method to avoid making a mess with blood. In seeing himself on the video playback Anwar’s only concern is that a killer would never have worn white trousers on the job.
The Act of Killing consists of both excerpts from the finished film and scenes of prior discussion in preparation for the filming in which Congo and his friends fantasize on how they would like to turn the film into a “beautiful family movie” that celebrates their heroic gestures. Given his passion for cinema, Anwar’s response to Oppenheimer’s challenge is enthusiastic and he offers to cast himself as the hero in scenes inspired by the Hollywood films he enjoyed in his youth. The extracts are a bizarre mixture of classic American gangster films, Cowboy movies, Indonesian horror-fantasy genre and even a surreal musical number with bright colours and a giant metal fish. Anwar’s protégé, Herman Koto a fat gangster and paramilitary leader, appears repeatedly dressed in extravagant costumes, sometimes in drag, or in a tight pink dress.
In one of the most shocking scenes, they recreate the burning of a village in which inhabitants are brutally murdered. The scene is so realistic that the non-professional child actors can’t stop crying long after cameras stop rolling. During the filming one subject jokes about his rape of 14 year old girls, exulting in the cruelty of the act.
Apart from the re-enactments, the film also explores the underworld of the Medan gangster establishment revealing its close connections with political power. In the delirious and naïve attempt to explain themselves, the killers take Oppenheimer to visit some of the most powerful figures in Indonesian society who rather than try to be more subtle about their involvement in the massacres, they amplify the “performance of impunity”.
We see gangsters hold high government office, a leading newspaper publisher boast about how he manufactured evidence against suspected Communists, members of the Pemuda Pancasila (PP) parade through the streets, the nation’s Vice President at the time, Jusuf Kalla attend a PP convention to congratulate the gangsters on their entrepreneurial spirit reminding the crowd that the term “gangster” (premans) only means “free man.”
The more we dig into this dystopic reality, the more we realise that Congo’s image of himself as a hero is not just the delusion of a sociopath, but a fantasy that pervades the highest ranks of Indonesian establishment. The most shocking demonstration of this madness happens when Congo and his friends are praised on national television for developing the choking technique that became a “new, more efficient method for exterminating communists.”
Interestingly, Oppenheimer never puts these men on trial nor attempts to make them feel guilty about what they have done; there is no counterbalance from the victims’ perspectives. Instead he gives the perpetrators full liberty in their testimony letting the inexplicable truth emerge on its own. The extraordinary thing that happens is that, in the act of presenting their fantasy version to the audience, the reality of what they have done begins to dawn on them. We see their conscience unravel before our eyes in a twisted emotional process that starts with denial, repression and ultimately ends with shame. Once the act is over and the veil lifted they are confronted with what they’ve done.
Oppenheimer describes the underlying reason for the re-enactments as a way to expose how we constantly interpret our reality through storytelling in order to escape from horrible, indigestible truths.
“I understood instinctively that if we could show how these men wished to be seen, we would also glimpse how they really see themselves, and the whole façade that genocide is heroic would come crumbling down.”
Towards the end of the film Congo watches his performance on the screen and finally has a moment of self-realisation: “Have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is this all coming back to me? I really hope it won’t.”
In the final scene, Congo is shown on the rooftop where he performed many of his executions and suddenly he feels sick, trying to puke but without managing to. The scene rolls for a minute or two, making the experience very intense to watch. Whether this moment is a genuine act of remorse or just one more performance is debatable. However, what is significant about that scene is Congo’s desire to be seen as remorseful. His reaction represents a realization that the massacre could be seen as something other than an act of heroism.
The director’s choice not to interfere with his subjects results in a total absence of moral judgment that is perhaps the most disturbing element of the film and what made many people deeply uncomfortable with it. Much of the criticism of Oppenheimer’s approach was that he risked reinforcing the killers’ version of events, celebrating instead of condemning them. One commentator went as far as to compare the film to a “snuff movie”.
But this moral ambiguity is precisely the key to its power. Presenting killers not as evil beings but merely as people who did something evil, forces us to empathise or at least relate to them on some level, no matter how hard we try to resist it. The intent is to challenge the conception that a clear distinction between good and evil actually exists in this world. According to Oppenheimer this is an over simplistic approach to morality, a fiction reinforced by journalistic storytelling and Hollywood narrative in order to make us feel better about ourselves. The bitter reality this film wants us to acknowledge is that even the most abhorrent of evil acts from rape to genocide, are committed by everyday human beings. If we insist on absolving ourselves from responsibility then history will inevitably repeat itself.
The truth is that we, Western audience, are not so far removed from these crimes as we think, whether we knew it or not, we collectively turned a blind eye, condoning a genocide that took the lives of over one million people.
When The Act of Killing was awarded a Bafta, Oppenheimer used the acceptance speech to thank the anonymous Indonesian crew and co-director for their invaluable work, and finally highlighted that neither the UK nor the US can have an ethical relationship with Indonesia until they acknowledge the crimes of the past, and their collective role in supporting, participating in, and ultimately ignoring those crimes.
Despite being officially banned in Indonesia, the act of killing has been viewed by millions through a network of underground distributors and social media. The film’s opening led to the first article about the genocide to be written in a major Indonesian publication and the 2014 Oscar nomination forced the government to publicly acknowledge the genocide for the first time.
Whatever opinion one might have regarding the methodology used, it is nonetheless an extraordinarily powerful film that everyone interested in humanity should watch and also one that actually made a real difference in helping Indonesia break its silence about its own recent past.
Oppenheimer’s second film and Oscar nominated The Look of Silence (2014) represents the culmination of the director 13-year work on the Indonesian genocide.