The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn, 2013) is a documentary about Indonesia’s anti-communist purges of 1965 that thankfully abandons the traditional interview format in favour of something daring and controversial.
As requested by victims’ families, Oppenheimer — who has been working inside Indonesia making social justice-related media for over a decade — makes members of the notorious killing squads from said purges his film’s subjects.
Originally recruited by the paramilitary Pancasila Youth to form a killing squad while hanging around their local movie theatre, the way the killers featured in the film choose to talk about their acts during the purges is unconventional by any documentary standard, that is, by re-enacting them as though they were scenes from movies (all the while acknowledging the influence of iconic Hollywood crime films).
After repeatedly acting out the mass murders they committed, taking turns portraying victims, and viewing daily rushes of what had been shot, several of the film’s protagonists/killers eventually admit that they know what they did was wrong but had believed government propaganda at the time. The film’s main subject and leader of the killing squad, Anwar Congo, actually has a controversial physical reaction towards the end of the film, retching as he visits a rooftop where he has killed hundreds.
Reaction to the film, and specifically to the scene on the rooftop, has been mixed. Nick Fraser has said that the film treats the killers with impunity while obscuring the aspects of the film most of interest to him, and allowing the audience to feel at once uncomfortable with what they are seeing and pleased with themselves for sitting through it.
He’s not wrong about the last part: The film should make audiences uncomfortable, especially in parts of the world whose governments were complicit in propping up Indonesia’s current regime in the name of stamping out Communism, and it has always been hip in certain circles to make a point of seeing the most uncomfortably graphic films dealing with the most brutal topics imaginable (“Porn for liberals,” as he puts it).
With that said, though, it’s important to note two things.
First, the film wasn’t primarily made for such audiences, but for an Indonesian audience whose access to divergent perspectives on their political history than the official government narrative is at best limited.
Second, in an interview with Melis Behlil for Cineaste’s summer 2013 issue, Oppenheimer explains that the families of the victims of the purges indeed asked the filmmaker to make a film about the killers in order to fully expose this part of Indonesia’s history, and to get a confession or acknowledgement of the events from those responsible, thus showing how this part of Indonesian history is still used as a tool of repression.
Surely we can all agree that the families finally getting some kind of formal acknowledgement of their loved ones’ fates can, just this once, take precedence over what’s most interesting to a privileged Western audience of amateur ethnographers.
As for accusations of impunity, other, less prominent viewers have previously levied the same charge, some claiming that the film glorifies Anwar’s past actions, canonizes the killers by lavishing attention on them, and effectively serves as a Pancasila manifesto. These viewers also tend to share Fraser’s impression that Anwar’s physical reaction in particular is “wholly inadequate as an expression of self-recognition or guilty feelings.”
These claims do not stand up to logical examination. The Pancasila Youth are only held up as heroes by the Indonesian government and by those few who believe the official, sanitized version of Indonesian history that glosses over the purges of 1965-1966. To never ask the killers to show their faces and own their actions would implicitly uphold the lie that the purges were a noble and patriotic act, and not anything to be ashamed of, further repressing discussion of any other perspective on these events.
Not holding the killers to account and focusing only on the victims’ families (as most often suggested by the film’s detractors) would actually leave room for pro-government/pro-Pancasila voices to claim that the film is a work of fiction that makes exaggerated or false claims about the past, thereby setting the killers up to be further martyred and glorified by the Indonesian government.
If the film as it is now really did canonize the killers, would it not then serve the government’s purposes and thus be given wide, official distribution, and perhaps be shown in schools as an updated anti-Communist propaganda film? If the film did glorify the killers, wouldn’t the filmmakers then have access to officially sanctioned and monetized distribution channels in Indonesia, rather than making it available for free download in Indonesia?
If all of that were the case, then a leaked torrent of a rough cut probably wouldn’t have provoked a reaction on a message board from someone connected to the production asking users to please seed the director’s cut with potentially harmful material removed (while also encouraging people to download and circulate the film in their social circles).
There have also been questions as to how both the film and Anwar’s reaction to his sudden understanding of what he has done would be read by Indonesian audiences. Indications are fairly clear that The Act of Killing is being used as an activist film to raise awareness of a chapter in Indonesian history that has, until now, been rewritten to both glorify and minimize the mass killings.
As reported by Al-Jazeera’s 101 East, not only are these events finally starting to be discussed, but researchers wanting to exhume mass graves from the purges in Bali need permits that have never been granted until the current surge of international interest in Indonesian politics. (The sites of these mass graves, in the most literal act of “glossing over” imaginable, frequently have luxurious tourist resorts built directly on top of them.)
In the same episode of 101 East, Anwar’s attempts to claim the film is a manipulative work of fiction are cut short by his recorded, emotional reaction to a screening of the completed film and an admission that what the film says is true.
Coupled with his subsequent refusal to do any more press, this hints at a great deal of shame and unease on Anwar’s part: He knows what he did in 1965 was wrong and is beginning to grasp the magnitude of it, he has been filmed multiple times, both within The Act of Killing and by 101 East, having increasingly emotional reactions to this realization, and, coming from a highly patriarchal society, is possibly uncomfortable having these reactions at all, let alone quite so publicly.
If anything, rather than being canonized by the film, Anwar has been confronted with and broken down by the realization that his actions were real and took the lives of and otherwise impacted thousands of others who are as human as he is and that they have not provided any of the salvation, success or glory he thought they would.
As for that famous scene on the roof, it’s always possible that any and all documentary subjects lie, exaggerate or otherwise ham it up for the camera, which is the subject of a lot theoretical writing on documentary filmmaking.
Having said that, my understanding of the situation is that as viewers, we don’t want to believe it’s a genuine reaction because we’re so horrified by what Anwar admits to having done that we can’t, or don’t want to, accept that he is also capable of being as sickened by it as we are, in some cases literally – I know my stomach turned more than once on first seeing the film and I can’t imagine being alone on that either.
Accepting that Anwar might be genuinely reacting this way would mean accepting that the man who has shown himself to be a monster is still capable of human reactions, which is not an easy thing to do, and by Oppenheimer’s own admission is the most challenging aspect of the film for most viewers.
Kristi Kouchakji is a student, filmmaker, and is-there-a-god?mother. When not writing essays, chasing money, or being chewed on by a teething infant, she can be found skulking around Twitter as @badyogi.