This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.

Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing"
A Terribly Human Challenge
by JULIE WARK

In 1 October 1965, following an alleged “attempted Communist coup”, a group of Indonesian army leaders embarked on one of the worst crimes in human history – the organised massacre of probably more than a million people (nobody counted), mainly members of the Communist Party, the women’s movement, the trade union movement, intellectuals, teachers, ethnic Chinese citizens, land reform advocates and other democrats, plus the imprisonment without trial of hundreds of thousands of others. The real coup, General Suharto’s, overthrew the left-leaning, nonaligned government of Sukarno, founder of independent Indonesia, and ushered in the New Order, a cruelly repressive military regime soon to be notorious for its rampant corruption.

The news was gleefully reported in the United States under headlines like “A Gleam of Light in Asia” and “The West’s Best News for Years in Asia”. Documents released years later show that the United States and British governments (with help from Australia) were deeply complicit in the massacres and consolidation of Suharto regime, providing funds, weapons, radios and, in particular, death lists with thousands of names of Sukarno’s leftist supporters, both prominent and grassroots. Nonetheless, the evidence as to this connivance has caused little outcry. The unspeakable scale of the murders has been papered over enough to provide Indonesia with an almost acceptable face in mainstream international relations. In the domestic sphere, it has been left visible enough for the convenience of a regime that rules by terror: its killers not only walk free but have been national heroes for the past forty-eight years.

Films attempting to document the events of 1965–66 have hitherto concentrated on testimonies of the victims, frail people speaking about dreadful ordeals and condemning past and continuing injustice. These are brave, very important films because they all dispute the official history. However, they have also been made with miniscule budgets, limited technology and have had very restricted circulation, not least because of fear of the regime, so they cannot make any deep or lasting impact on the extraordinarily successful anticommunist propaganda that prevails in the Indonesian public sphere. Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the film The Act of Killing – co-directed by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian (the long list of “Anonymous” in the credits speaks volumes) – originally wanted to make a film about the survivors but this proved impossible because, all those years later, they were too afraid to speak and, anyway, when he tried, the military confiscated his equipment. He then decided to approach the regime’s henchmen. He realised that, if they cooperated, they might strip away the mask from a “democracy” in which citizens are subjected to all-pervasive fear. If killers brag about their deeds this is, of course, another way of revealing how the state imposes terror. Oppenheimer spent eight years interviewing some of these killers and they were only too willing to talk. This is no uplifting tale of repentance. However, the result of his 1,200 hours of filming is radically subversive as it shockingly undermines the impunity enjoyed by mass murderers, some of whom still hold positions of power at local and national levels.

The title of this extraordinary film refers both to the deed of killing and its re-enactment. The former meaning immediately raises many thorny issues. Killing members of our own species en masse, time and time again, in an organised fashion, is a distinctively human act so, in an interview with Amy Goodman, Oppenheimer has big questions not only about Indonesia but also about our very humanity: What does it mean for human beings to kill. What are the consequences of killing? Why do we kill? What are the consequences of impunity for killing in our societies? How do we justify killing through the stories we tell? The stories, circumspect in the official version of the indirect murderers (we freed the land of evil communists), and unrestrained bragging in that of the direct murderers (we beat them, raped them, garrotted them) serve the same purpose: underpinning a regime established by means of the “particularly odious” (in the words of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) offence of lèse-humanité. Indonesia’s trauma is seething beneath the surface of a political system that strives to look benign under a president whose father-in-law, Sarwo Edhie, was one of the most callous killers in 1965-66. Sarwo Edhie was never tried and the regime he helped to establish can only be cruel because, once told, the founding lies of the system must be perpetuated by any means.

Oppenheimer’s question about the stories we tell also refers to the re-enactment aspect of his film, which goes back to the Hollywood film industry at the time when the head of the American Motion Picture Association of Indonesia was widely suspected to be embroiled in a CIA plot to overthrow Sukarno. Accordingly, in 1964 and 1965, there was a sweeping boycott of American films. Leftists demonstrated outside cinemas, which greatly upset a bunch of gangsters in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. Among their milder criminal activities was ticket scalping and, moreover, they loved the movies so much that they had developed their own particular Hollywood-inspired gangster culture.

The Indonesian word for gangster is preman, from the Dutch “free man” which, for them, meant unconstrained (male) power which, in the service of the State, could also bring personal benefits. Their antisocial definition of freedom was inspired in good part by Hollywood movies whose grossest “free”-market symbols appear throughout Oppenheimer’s film at their behest. They also learned about cruelty from all the sadistic movies they watched. These gangsters were “free” – unleashed – to be as cruel as they liked after 30 September 1965 when the military, needing to keep a low profile in the massacres, recruited thugs like them to do the job. The first principle of Pancasila, the Five Pillars of the Republic of Indonesia, is “Belief in One God”. Communists were impious enemies of Islam and traitors to the Republic. Ergo, they had to be exterminated. The “youth organisation” Pemuda Pancasila quickly became a killing machine of three million members who, in the perverted world they inhabit, wear flame-coloured “camouflage” because going unseen is the last thing they want. The preman, destroyers of the enemies of Islam, still have the blessing of Jusuf Kalla, Vice-President (now aspiring President) of Indonesia, who tells a laughing, applauding audience at a meeting shown in the film that the nation needs gangsters.

One of the main characters, the Pemuda Pancasila leader, Anwar Congo, who at one point dyes his hair black to “be” his younger self and jovially provides the detail “I wore jeans for killing”, describes how he went to work at the place he calls “the office of blood”.

If we watched a happy film, like an Elvis movie, we’d walk out of the cinema with a smile, dancing along to the music. Our hands and feet, still dancing – still in the mood of the film – and if girls passed, we’d whistle. We were excited. We didn’t care what people thought. This was the paramilitary office, where I always killed people. […] It was like we were killing happily.

Then there is another level of acting. The national hero Anwar, a mixture of gangster, free man, saviour, leader and upholder of the faith, killed a thousand or so people, perfecting his act of killing as he tried to hide behind the host of characters, the dramatis personae that became his selfhood while he went about it, with a little singing and dancing now and then. The Act of Killing draws terrible truths from men who can’t express guilt in any normal way.

These men have no fear of punishment. One of them says, “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner so I can make my own definition.” The winners had their backers, right up the national chain of command and across the seas to Washington, as an exchange of telegrams between the U.S State Department and the U.S Embassy in Jakarta confirms. Naively, perhaps, Anwar and his friends are comfortable with Oppenheimer, precisely because he is a citizen of Indonesia’s friend, the United States. The awful veracity of the film is clear in scenes showing to what extent the self-incriminating protagonists enjoy the protection of top-level politicians who, in turn, flaunt their closeness to the preman. Then again, instead of making his characters an object of the camera, Oppenheimer invites them to take part in the scripting, casting, design and shooting of the film in which they starred. They comment on the footage – pre-empting ethical doubts as to whether they’ve been tricked into cooperating – and its possible consequences. Oppenheimer asks one man if he’s prepared to be indicted for war crimes as a result of the film. The answer? “Please tell them to indict me!”

Thrilled with this chance to be heroes of their own film they chose all sorts of formats – western, gangster film, musical, thriller, drag spoof, war film, and Sound of Music à la Indonesia, complete with fuchsia-pink floaty dresses, a giant fish, a huge waterfall and, of course, violence, fire, screams, lots of bodies and lots of gore. After one especially violent scene, one of the killers comforts his little granddaughter, “Pebby, your acting was great. But you have to stop crying.” What the film reveals is that they didn’t only kill people but ideas, normal social life, solidarity, and truth. The garrotted facts can only surface in grotesque utterances like this comment of Anwar’s:

There’s many ghosts here, because many people were killed here. They died unnatural deaths. Unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy [he acts them marching in]. When they got here, they were beaten up [he acts them cowering], and died. At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood. There was so much blood here. So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system [a piano wire garrotte]. Can I show you? [He gives a demonstration with the help of a friend who plays the victim.]

I’ve tried to forget all this, with good music [smiles], dancing [dances a few steps], feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little – what do you call it? Ecstasy? Once I’d get drunk, I’d fly and feel happy [he dances and sings].

One of his friends raped hundreds of young girls and is happy to talk about it. “The nice ones are the 14 and 15 years old. Still young and fresh!” For all their bravado, these killers are also ghosts, empty shells of men condemned to spending the rest of their days pretending to be human. What is even more shocking is that the film prompts viewers to extrapolate the figure of this individual to a whole regime (and not just the Indonesian regime), a soulless phantasm that, by its very nature, cannot respect human values. In one scene, a function in which tribute is paid to Anwar, a smiling young woman tells a cheering audience, “Anwar Congo and his friends developed a new, more efficient system for exterminating communists. A system more humane, less sadistic, and without excessive violence – but you also just wiped them out!” Oppenheimer had gone looking for “embodiments of pure evil” and found apparently ordinary people who, one way or another, were still perpetuating crimes against humanity.

Anwar, who also appears as a loving grandfather, has nightmares, in which eyes stare at him from a decapitated head. Watching his re-enactments, he tries in the only way he knows to shield himself from the self-supplied evidence of his crimes. He starts embellishing scenes, which become increasingly bizarre. In one especially garish fragment women sing “Born Free” by a waterfall while two dead communists rise, take the garrottes from their necks and present a black-robed Anwar with a medal because he has sent them to heaven. As Oppenheimer very well understood, Anwar was producing allegories, trying to embellish a whole system of impunity.

The film ends with Anwar returning to his “office of blood”. He’s still bragging but suddenly stops. He starts retching, a hideous, wordless noise as he tries to vomit up a thousand ghosts or the realisation that no amount of fantasy will free him of his crimes because he’ll never be able to bridge the gap between his fictional self and the dreadful reality of what he did. He is trying to vomit up the void, choking on the terror of looking into his self-made abyss. Yet in some parts of the film there is a certain pragmatic confrontation with the truth. Adi Zulkadry, killer of his Chinese girlfriend’s father, and countless others, says,

If we succeed with this film – it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel. And show that we were cruel! We’re the cruel ones [laughs] … It’s not about fear. It’s forty years ago … so any criminal case has expired. It’s about image. The whole society will say: ‘We always suspected it. They lied about the communists being cruel.’ It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history.

None of his friends heed the warning. They want to see their narcissistic project through to the end.

Anwar eventually asks, “Have I sinned?” Is “sin” an appropriate word? If understood in the non-religious sense of breaking a moral or social code, perhaps it is. Or was Anwar just a cog in a machine? Now the questions become really uncomfortable because they touch on the complicity of everyone except those rendered totally powerless by victimhood. In the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the defence argued that he was just a tiny cog in the whole Final Solution. A cog implies giant machinery, like a Carl-Schmitt-style state. Sin implies crime and flesh-and-blood agents, human beings, free to choose whether they want to be responsible for and answerable to moral codes. Or not. Eichmann, the guilt dodger, wanted to surrender the free human spirit and individuality to a totalitarian system. In a “democracy” citizens are complicit, to a greater or lesser degree, in what the state (which theoretically represents them), says, does and demands. Complicit in its lies. This brings us to present issues, war crimes in the name of anti-terrorism, persecution of journalists and whistleblowers, murder-by-drone (“A system more humane, less sadistic, and without excessive violence – but you also just wiped them out!”), and the general denial of critical thought – hatred of it – that must be enforced by any regime based on lies. And what regime today isn’t?

What has happened in Indonesia after a bunch of braggart killers exposed the regime’s lies? The Act of Killing has been denied open distribution and, of course, threats have been made against Oppenheimer and his anonymous colleagues. However, editors at the news magazine Tempo were so shocked by the film (seen at a secret screening) that they immediately sent some sixty reporters all over Indonesia to investigate the killings and do their part in breaking the silence. They found that the truths that emerged in The Act of Killing applied to the whole country, as reported in a special edition of 1 October titled ‘Pengakuan Algojo’ (Executioners’ Confessions). Naturally, the Attorney General has stated that there’s no evidence that the mass killing was a violation of human rights, only showing yet again how the regime mangles language in upholding its lies. But the press is starting to use the word “genocide” to refer to the 1965 killings. If journalists are serious about this, they will also have to reveal, and use the same word to describe what the regime is presently doing in West Papua.

Aware of the risks of public screenings, Oppenheimer has promised to make the film freely available online in Indonesia. Hard truths will gradually become known but Indonesia still has a long way to go. So do we all. The whole world is fast sliding backwards in terms of human rights, human dignity and humanity itself. This film is incredibly important as it concerns everyone. If Barack Obama, trying to hide the truth of his regime’s crimes by imprisoning whistleblowers, is not haunted in his dreams by staring eyes in decapitated Waziri or Yemeni heads, and if European leaders in the ruins of their economic folly are not shamed by the catastrophe they’ve wrought, then it is up to the rest of us to do more than just being shocked and moved by this film. It challenges ordinary people to choose between being a cog in a vile machine or to take the moral high road and try, each to the best of his or her ability, to uphold and protect the kind of human dignity that would not allow monstrous crimes to happen. If we don’t, we’ll be helping to populate a devastated planet with cruel humanoid shells like Anwar Congo and his youth leader friends.

Julie Wark is the author of Manifiesto de derechos humanos (The Human Rights Manifesto, Ediciones Barataria, 2011) and is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso.