The Act of Killing: a step forward in a country that must look back

10 Posted by - February 27, 2014 - Features, Reviews, Screen

Editor’s note: Christine Phang, the author of this article, has also responded to attacks on the film by BBC critic Nick Fraser.

Indonesia’s history as an independent state has been a relatively short one. The authoritarian issues the country has faced, however, have played a large role in affecting several sociocultural aspects, a predominant one being the film industry.

The Indonesian film industry is highly reflective of the country’s political position — both are suppressed, censored, struggling to define themselves, and are still in the process of development and seeking liberty. Although Indonesia has only experienced film production through a tight government-controlled system, there has been slow progress over the years.

Moreover, the lack of freedom has taught filmmakers to work around heavy censorship through more alternative expressions. The film industry has witnessed several shifts in production and distribution in accordance to the political party at rule, but what is certain is that there has been a constant oppression in freedom of speech (both within the political and film spheres).

Much of the country’s traumas have either been dismissed or are still silently occurring, and a film that highlights this reality is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012).

The Act of Killing addresses the horrific events that took place during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purge by following Anwar Congo, just one of dozens of gang leaders who participated in the massacres.

However, before discussing The Act of Killing any further, it is instructive to familiarize oneself with Indonesia’s history of autocratic leadership in relation to the film industry.


A Background in Censorship at the Movies

Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch East India Company during the 1800s, and only declared independence in 1949. The Dutch were the first influence on Indonesian film, as they introduced the romantic musical, and more importantly government propaganda .

The introduction of government propaganda ignited the production of films concerning Indonesia’s battle against Dutch colonialism, which in effect caused an increase in nationalist feelings. Subsequently, Japanese occupation during the Second World War inspired the Indonesians to communicate social and political messages using film, and also influenced their production style.

After Indonesia’s independence, President Sukarno came into rule, starting the period know as the Guided Democracy. Sukarno was a strong nationalist who also pushed for an authoritarian state. Sukarno’s firm nationalist views bred several anti-Western implications, one of them culminating in the ban on Hollywood films in 1964. Before this, American film imports in the 1950s were highly admired by Indonesians.

At this time of newly forming political views, cinema, as an industrial and ideological endeavour, was implicated in Indonesian nationalism and anti-American foreign policy. The film industry became a hub of radical nationalist activity.

The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) became Sukarno’s biggest support base, and the divisions between right and left in the country were mirrored by divisions in the film industry..

The major left-wing supporters were known as LEKRA (linked to the PKI), while the right-wing was backed by LESBUMI (linked to the Muslim group Nahdatul Ulama). Both production companies were encouraged by supporters to create films that attacked the opposing faction.

Although the two groups created an enduring tension between each other and were on different sides of the political spectrum, a shared objective was to increase local film production and inhibit American importers.

American films were not the only target, as undiplomatic relations with Taiwan also caused the restriction of Taiwanese films around the same time ; it seemed to be that whatever countries the government had issues with would indeed apply to the importation of films, while boycotts appeared to be the most effective method to combat imperialism.

Although the film industry could be considered significantly government-regulated during this period, the suppression of free speech was about to become much worse.

30 September 1965 was a critical day in Indonesian history that would greatly affect the country’s future politically, economically, and socio-culturally. A coup started by young officers had led the army under General Suharto to overthrow them, blaming the ordeal on the communist party.

The targets of the brutal attacks were any group that was believed to have posed a threat to Indonesian nationalism. This included intellectuals, the ethnic Chinese, and of course communists. The raids and mass murders lasted a year, and resulted in the fall of Sukarno through the destruction of his political forces and the PKI, which lead to the rule of Suharto.

The rise of Suharto and the New Order era was not only a transition period in politics, but also brought about changes in cinema. Left-wing films and books were burned, and directors, technicians, and artists with any links to communist groups were detained without trial, some (one of them including prominent filmmaker Bachtiar Siagan) for over a decade. Unfortunately, this caused a large amount of Indonesia’s cinematic heritage to be eradicated during the civil war and counter-revolution period.

In 1966, the anti-American film policy was reversed, and Hollywood cinema yet again became predominant in the film market, also serving as a model for the new generation of Indonesian filmmakers. While the re-opened film market was accepting foreign pictures again, and improved business relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan allowed the import of Chinese films, this sudden entrance of international films caused the local industry to struggle .

Unlike the Sukarno era where at least the PKI and LESBUMI were emboldened to support local film production, the heavy censorship during the New Order period made it more difficult for local filmmakers to express their opinions freely. The Suharto family owned Indonesia’s media monopolies and had a firm authority over the film industry.

Even today, the state plays a major role in conditioning the texts and context of Indonesian films, as every film produced in the country must go through strict systems of national control (often still blocking films that deal with human rights violations). All films, whether produced locally or imported into Indonesia, must be screened by the Board of Film Censorship.

Under Suharto, the strict regulations were concerned with the security of the state and its rulers, and films were banned whenever they were considered a detriment to national consciousness or confronted race, religion, or class.

Most ideological modes of cinematic expression were also banned, including colonialism, imperialism, fascism, communism, and Marxism. And films certainly could not deface Indonesia’s internal or foreign politics or policies.

This policy and politics context represents an uncertainty and lost of identity, for the people are prevented from even bringing up ideas that might conflict with the state’s point of view, thus reinforcing the authoritarian grasp over the country.

In this way, the New Order regulations on cinema were much more inflexible than those during Sukarno’s regime, for expressing any opposition or having the freedom to debate is not possible. There is however, a shred of positivity to be found in this control: censorship forces filmmakers to be more innovative and work around the parameters they are confined to, since they now have to express their message through a more discreet means.

Despite the government’s attempt to fully monitor filmmakers’ content, this has become much more difficult and less crucial in recent years as the Indonesian film industry becomes more diversified.

Although the Indonesian filmmaker’s boundaries are limited, with time and growing influence from both domestic and foreign films, the country is moving towards the liberation of those who have been silenced.

The Act of Killing


Enter The Act of Killing

A powerful combination of fiction and documentary that has resurrected the unsettling massacre of 1965-66, is Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.

Highly reflective yet disturbing, the film exposes the severe political corruption that still persists in Indonesia today. The Act of Killing follows death squad leader Anwar Congo, as he retells the story of his days of slaughter. Anwar was enthusiastic about shooting and starring in his own documentary describing his prideful killings.

The film starts with Anwar reflecting on his past with joy, laughing and smiling as he reenacts execution methods and explains why the murders were necessary. There is a hint of humanism to be found, however, as he mentions that, “I’ve tried to forget all this with good music, dancing, feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little ecstasy.”

Here we see that Anwar still has the capacity to feel a little remorse, or at least some kind of immorality in his actions, therefore seeking exterior modes to numb himself.

One of these escapes includes cinema, as Anwar clearly expresses his long love for Hollywood films, reminiscing about dancing to Elvis and still being in the mood of the film as he left the theatre.

The violence in Hollywood pictures also influenced Anwar. He tells us he was inspired by the “cool ways of killing” he saw in the action genre, talks about the ban of American films when communism was strong, and how he would lose money on scalping tickets since the crowds were smaller.

Indeed he certainly stresses how important cinema was to him — it was not only a release to temporarily delay him from reflecting on his actions, it also kept gangsters alive and helped them earn money.

It is possible to say that the escapist themes in American films have supported gangsters like Anwar in a very indirect and unintentional way. An irony seems to persist, in that concerning Anwar’s deep admiration of cinema, it is through film that he has inadvertently been able to further reflect on the consequences he has caused, and eventually grieve.

The Act of Killing’s use of both fictional and documentary aspects is integral to the power of this film. Fantasy might better express what reality cannot, and vice versa. The inclusion of the fictional reenactments staring Anwar and his friends allows for a more symbolic presentation of emotional and psychological trauma, while also causing Anwar to contemplate his past.

As Oppenheimer explains in an interview:

It’s the gap between the symbolic and the real, perhaps, between language and the unspeakable. The whole time he is struggling to bridge this gap, to tame his memories by replacing them with concrete fictional scenes, to create, if you like, a cinematic scar tissue in place of his wound”.

A fitting example for this is captured during the powerful reenactment scene of Pancasila Youth burning the small village in Medan. This scene was perhaps the most realistic and emotionally traumatizing out of all the reenactments, and as a result, Anwar realizes it is impossible to grasp the horror the victims felt.

“Honestly, I never expected it would look this awful,” he admits.

Anwar is finally removing himself from the position of perpetrator to that of the victim, and begins to question how he is responsible for the futures of the children’s lives he has destroyed.

The aesthetic fantasy components also allow the audience to perhaps find similarities between the killers, and us, which leads to the notion Oppenheimer calls “suspension of disbelief”. Although most of us do not actively commit mass murders and certainly do not fall into the same class of maliciousness as Anwar, it would be ignorance that would prevent us from saying we are somehow connected to the problem.

As Oppenheimer says, “We all know we are much closer to the perpetrators than we like to think, that we are dependent on other people’s suffering for our survival in the current system.”

In China, there are men like Anwar who keep Chinese workers intimidated so they can’t fight against the terrible conditions in which they work. We all know it, and we depend on it so that we can afford our clothing, our electronics, virtually everything we need in our daily lives.

Unfortunately, most countries commit their own forms of genocides (whether directly or indirectly), and our lack of protest to these conditions essentially allows them to continue.

What is exceptionally disheartening about The Act of Killing is that it is not only a reflection on horrific genocide from the past, it is a reminder that the ones who committed these war crimes are still governing the country today.

When the same authoritarian power owns dominating corporations such as media companies, supermarkets, nightclubs, and various illegal networks, the people are left without any ability to protest since this would affect them directly at every level of society.

Throughout the film, Anwar shows his close relations to several high status persons and organizations such as the Governor of Sumatra, Ibrahim Sinik, and Pancasila Youth.

Ibrahim Sinik, who is a publisher for the newspaper company Medan Pos, was responsible for gathering information on selected people and decided who was guilty and to be killed. Sinik overtly admits to propaganda: “Whatever we asked, we’d change their answers to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them.”

Adi also admits to the fabrication of propaganda, but wants to contain this acknowledgement for the sake of preserving the justified anti-communist history. “If we succeed in the film, it will disapprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we are the cruel ones.” he says. “It’s not a problem for us, it’s a problem for history”.

Medan Pos has never publicly confessed its involvement with aiding death squads in the 1960s, and Sinik still describes the power he had with complete and utter arrogance.

Pancasila Youth is one of Indonesia’s biggest paramilitary organizations, and played a leading role in the communist purge. There is a notable scene in the film that depicts the corruption of the governing establishment, where Satif Pardede (the local paramilitary leader) is shown hassling ethnic Chinese in a market, threatening them so they will pay him.

It is suggested that this happens often, as the market workers seem to be used to this by now and easily succumb to the blackmail. It is hard to watch the completely helpless Chinese workers do nothing but smile and laugh as they give their money away to a corrupt high-status group that serves them in no way.

The Act of Killing

The example of Herman running for office is also one that proves that the country’s idea of “democracy” is fully erroneous. Politicians do not care about the people. The title of Governor is simply what they are after, and Herman is aware of this as he suggests schemes of tricking citizens into giving him money for “repairing buildings”.

In conjunction, the lies and manipulation to further one’s own personal needs is also reflected in the people. Many people on the street where Herman campaigns are asking for “bonuses” and when they will receive free t-shirts and gifts.

Corruption has seeped into society from the top-down, and the dishonesty is played out on both sides. The public’s support is also dependent on the trivial promises of small amounts of money and material possessions.

Herman acknowledges this entirely:

And when you see thousands of people at a rally, all of them are paid to be there. Without money they won’t come. They’ll ask each other, how much did you get? Nowadays, nobody believes what they’re campaigning for. We’ve all become like soap opera actors.

Throughout the film it becomes palpable that Indonesia has been trapped in a cycle of unjust politics where the government and citizens have no genuine faith in each other.

This is a pattern that is difficult to escape when the same message is still being reiterated today by the same authoritarian regime that caused the 1965 massacre. This backwards movement is supported when Pardede states that “Young people must remember their history, they must never forget”, which is the complete opposite direction towards reconciliation and healing the country.

The communist purge was a devastating moment in Indonesian history and its victims are still far from receiving the apology and justice they deserve. Anwar and his squad, as well as the other dozens of gangs that were involved in the massacre, are unable to undo the crimes they have committed and ramifications they have caused to victims’ families. They may have been able to escape punishment by law, but the mental disturbances that have spawned inside them will persist into the foreseeable future.

Anwar finally starts to realize this as The Act of Killing comes to a close, and his ease of telling stories and pride diminishes to an unbearable revolt by the end of the film. He questions himself as to whether he has done wrong and sinned, and even starts to tear up.

At one point of the film, Anwar asks Oppenheimer if this was how his victims felt. “Yes,” the filmmaker replies, “except what they felt was much worse because it was really happening to them”.

After repeatedly playing the victim and watching not only his visceral actions on screen, but also his own emotional hauntings transcend into a surreal interpretation, Anwar’s facade has been shattered.

Anwar’s remorse will not change history, however it is a progressive step in understanding the killers are humans like the rest of us, and there is still hope in reconciliation.

Authoritarian dictatorship has had a long history in Indonesia, and it is difficult to break from these chains when they have been repeatedly established for generations. However, Oppenheimer argues:

I think that’s why the film functions like the little child who says, ‘The emperor is not wearing any clothes.’ Everybody knew it but was too afraid to say it. But once it’s been said with such conviction, and by the perpetrators themselves, there is no going back.

The Act of Killing acts as a catalyst that says what everyone wants to say, but is too afraid to.

Furthermore, the film forces us to understand the killers as human, which is perhaps something most of us do not want to admit. Acceptance is necessary for change to take place, and we must understand that these crimes of injustice apply to all of us, at least in the abstract, moral sense.

The same way Anwar can understand that a propaganda film is a lie yet still support it, we too may understand that the smart phone we own is made under hazardous working conditions by underpaid child labourers, yet we are still able to admire and desire the object. In this way the film is not only about framing the killers in a certain light, it is an attempt to understand them, to explore their way of thinking and how we are all more alike than we may realize.

The response to The Act of Killing has been successful in that it has facilitated dialogue and exposed the truth to the people of Indonesia, out in the open, as it were.

As mentioned in the Cineaste interview with Oppenheimer, there has been a strong and positive reaction to the film in Indonesia, and “the survivors movement has been using the film as their primary tool to show what happened.”

The Act of Killing has compelled mainstream media to start reporting what really occurred for the first time, breaking the long silence of an issue that has never been readdressed. The notion that the film has opened discussion, promoted sharing of information, and brought some comfort to victims’ families is a massive advancement.

The fact that a film that challenges Indonesia’s governance and policies is actually being seen in Indonesia is an incredible step ahead from the restrictive censorship of yesterday.

As Oppenheimer reminds us, “You need truth before you can have reconciliation,” which is exactly why The Act of Killing serves as the foundational base for change.

Read Christine Phang’s response to attacks on the film by BBC critic Nick Fraser.

Christine Phang studies film at Concordia University in Montreal. When her eyes start to burn from writing or watching films, this Vancouver-born wandering soul can be found juicing, enjoying the view from a mountain, or reading about the neurobiology of crows. Among other things, she finds comfort in photography, musical experiences, wildlife, and her grandmother’s 6-hour Javanese stew.

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