By: Ron Jenkins
For almost half a century, Indonesia has avoided public discussions of the mass murders committed in 1965 and 1966. Now, just as the nation’s National Commission on Human Rights has declared the killings a “gross violation of human rights”, a new documentary film offers a startling way to confront the crimes.
Instead of investigating the facts behind the deaths, the film examines the delusions that have obscured them.
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, self-proclaimed murderers are given the opportunity to reenact their crimes. This enables audiences to witness the deaths, not as they happened, but as they are remembered by the killers.
Oppenheimer calls his film a “documentary of the imagination”. It is an appropriate label for a movie that reveals the links between the human capacity for self-delusion and cinema’s ability to reedit the past into comforting fantasy.
The film within the film is conceived and directed by the killers, who play the roles of perpetrators and victims. On the surface this concept is grotesque, bordering on exploitation, but the documentary unfolds with surprising delicacy because the primary focus is not on the bloody reenactments, but on the way the killers see themselves and the way that they think the world sees them.
We watch the killers watching re-enactments on video monitors and commenting on their own performances. “I did it wrong.” We watch the killers selecting costumes for the reenactments. “I would never wear white.” We watch the killers reflecting on the past as they put on make-up to stage a massacre. “The key is to find a way not to feel guilty.”
And when a man tells how his step-father was murdered, we watch the killers attempt to mask all emotion from their faces as they decide to leave the passage out of their film. “Your story is too complicated. It would take days to shoot.” These scenes make it clear that the killers are editing their emotional responses to the past at the same time that they are editing their cinematic representation of how things happened.
The killers are attracted to the idea of making a movie because their murder techniques were inspired by Hollywood films. “I was influenced by films starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino,” says Anwar Congo, a central figure in the documentary.
Anwar initially bludgeoned his victims to death, but abandoned that method because it was too bloody. He decided that strangulation with wire would be more efficient.
“And you know where I got the inspiration for it,” he says. “I always watched gangster films where they always kill with wire. It’s faster with wire.”
The killers are not the only ones editing the past to make it more palatable. The former vice president of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, is seen praising Anwar and his colleagues as heroes who saved the nation from a communist takeover.
Kalla calls the killers “gangsters” and explains that the Indonesian term for “gangster” (preman) comes from the English phrase “free man.” “This nation needs free men,” continues Kalla. “We need gangsters to get things done.”
We see the killers are interviewed on a television talk show. The host introduces them as “gangsters making a film to commemorate their crushing of the communists.” When Anwar explains that he borrowed his killing techniques from Hollywood gangster films, the host exclaims, “Amazing!” and the studio audience cheers.
With support like this, it is not surprising that the killers envision themselves as movie heroes. “We were allowed to do it,” says Adi Zulkadry, “and the proof is we murdered people and were never punished.”
The public glorification of the killings as anti-communist acts of heroism enables the “gangsters” to memorialize the murders without guilt. One scene in the film within the film depicts a murdered victim thanking his killer for sending him to heaven.
The documentary highlights the significance of impunity in Indonesia’s culture of corruption. We see one of the “gangsters” recounting how he killed many Chinese during the massacres. Then we see him extorting bribes from contemporary Chinese shopkeepers.
Another “gangster” runs for the legislature and muses on how his elected position would enrich him through graft. The citizens he meets during the campaign demand bribes in exchange for their votes.
The Act of Killing unravels a tapestry of impunity that suggests Indonesia’s inability to accept responsibility for past crimes may be related to its inability to curb present lawlessness. It is a critique that is relevant to all countries where the powerful are not held accountable for the laws they break.
Adi’s defiant views about human rights echo the attitude of many unpunished criminals throughout the world. “War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition … not everything true should be made public … Even God has secrets.”
Footnote: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on October 18, 2012; and in the paper edition, it was printed in the page 7. It is also able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 23 October 2012].
The writer, a former Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow and professor of theater at Wesleyan University, is the author of numerous books on Indonesia. He interviewed director Joshua Oppenheimer after the Toronto Film Festival in September 2012.