In 1965, a military coup crippled Indonesia. Begun apparently to thwart a communist coup in October, the military, under General Suharto, slaughtered half a million people with the active support of both the USA and the UK. Suharto violently suppressed all opposition and led a corrupt government. Thatcher visited in 1985, later writing in “The Downing Street Years”, “though there have been serious human rights abuses, particularly in East Timor, this is a society which by most criteria ‘works.’” This was Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999, which killed a further one hundred thousand people. Since a society ‘works’ despite human rights abuses, Callaghan, Thatcher and others continued to sell Suharto arms. The murderers in Indonesia live on with impunity and they are still in power – still able to intimidate their neighbours and still honoured on national television for crushing the communists. Essentially, they are mass murderers who won, their crimes ignored (two and a half million killed) and their country running along thanks to the support of the capitalist West.
The Act of Killing follows a number of these murderers, particularly Anwar Congo, a self-proclaimed gangster and sadistic murderer, who looks back on his crimes with pride and nostalgia. They were leaders of their local Pancasila Youth paramilitary death squad. Initially, we see Congo and his old colleagues describe their killings and their love of cinema. These two interests go uncomfortably hand-in-hand when Congo describes going to see an Elvis film and then swaggering across the road to kill more prisoners. The documentary follows them as they attempt to recreate their tortures and killings, turning genocide into spectacle, offering insights into their thoughts and motivations.
The film’s main novelty is the fact that it contains interviews with wholly unrepentant murderers and a lot of the most shocking scenes are both evil and banal. These people make jokes about their murderers (one recounts an incident wherein he walked down a street, stabbing any Chinese person he found and he is sure to finish with a punch line) and are frequently honoured as war heroes and patriots. In a break during filming, one killer boasts of how many women he used to rape during a raid of a village and, in particular, his pursuit of fourteen-year olds to a group of laughing cohorts. However, as the film progresses and the re-enactments, ranging from gangster movie pastiches to musical numbers, continue, the façade cracks and some of the murderers, particularly Congo, begin to express regrets.
This is not to say that the film lacks contemporary insight since many of these ‘gangsters’ – frequently translated as ‘free men’ – are still active. One even stands for election into a corrupt government. We see them travelling through their neighbourhoods, extorting money from local businesses and forcing mostly quiet and distant people, for fear of showing disobedience, into participating in their epic, violent visions. One actor reveals himself to be a child of one of the murdered and yet participates nonetheless. These scenes are disturbing and enraging and they also point to the ongoing lack of justice in Indonesia, but they are also part of where The Act of Killing falters.
The film is very short on context. The text at the opening of the film is brief and not very detailed. It is also unclear whether director Joshua Oppenheimer initiated the project of re-enactments or whether he is merely following a pre-existing phenomenon. As a result, we are given very little insight into Oppenheimer’s dealing with these people and, hence, his own culpability with the evil we see and hear. Congo and his friends are clearly acting for Oppenheimer’s camera but what about the local people and the business owners who are filmed being threatened. Is Oppenheimer’s camera observing or instigating? When we see neighbourhood children (with, very possibly, relatives who are/were victimised by the Pancasila Youth) crying, clearly disturbed by the violent nature of the re-enactments that are being filmed, may our own outrage not justifiably be directed at Oppenheimer for encouraging Congo et al.?
Similarly, there are too many scenes that feel a little too convenient. At the film’s end, Congo, having shown a re-enactment of one of his tortures to his grandchildren, suddenly starts to show real remorse. He says that he now understands how the victims were feeling since he had the same feelings during the filming. Now, and only now does Oppenheimer challenge him – saying that it is incomparable since Congo was being tortured for film and his victims were being tortured for real. Then, we cut back to the rooftop were Congo strangled so many of his victims to re-do a too-light hearted previous demonstration of his methods. Suddenly, Congo seems to be violently, physically suffering from the enormity of his guilt, loudly retching and visibly shaken. This sequencing is unexpectedly moving and offers a harrowing reminder that these mass murderers are not, after all, monsters. However, since Oppenheimer hides the nature of the documentary’s production, these scenes feel manipulated and deeply untrustworthy. Conclusions are too easily drawn and their honesty and ultimate truth is difficult to come by. It is not clear if we are seeing everything and if the editing choices were made in the pursuit of verisimilitude or merely a good story and drama.
The Act of Killing is valuable in demonstrating what Indonesia is today but also the kind of state that the West is prepared to support for their own economic interests. It is valuable for its undeniably real scenes – such as the talk show honouring the murderers broadcast on national Indonesian television and interrupted by frequent applause from the audience for each barbarity mentioned, a clip that really has to be seen to be believed. It is awkward formally and depends on withholding, manipulation and subterfuge much more than is comfortable. Its key message is damaged thanks to its untrustworthy and unsophisticated presentation. However, this message, either explicit or implicit, of full impunity for murderers in Indonesia and of the West’s culpability in mass slaughter, is worth telling again and again.
See also: Into The Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death (2012)