Academy Award nominations rarely touch upon the domain of politics, and certainly, they do not often infiltrate Indonesian politics. However, the year 2012 strayed from the norm when The Act of Killing, brought to the screens by American-British director Joshua Oppenheimer, won numerous international awards and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Not only had the film received positive reviews from film critics, The Act of Killing has been acknowledged by academic figures, such as by Slovenian political philosopher SlavojZizek.
This political documentary was brought to my attention by one of the readers on the basis that it confronts political events unknown to the majority of people. Confronting the Indonesian past, The Act of Killing aims to explain the politics of Indonesia to a larger audience by exposing the systematic acts of the massacre committed against leftist sympathizers in 1965, as well as attempts to manifest the continuous reproduction of a hegemonic discourse that denies historical accountability for the atrocity.
However, following the review of Alex Woodson, the exploration of the unknown is not the only preliminary worth of The Act of Killing. In this blog, I will explore three fundamental points of the film that may affect, just like it affected me, our views and understanding of politics, ethics, and movies. Specifically, I will scrutinize the killers who feature in the documentary; the role the film has played (or still has the potential to play) in Indonesian society. Lastly, I will examine the role that murder plays not only in films but also in everyday lives.
The history behind The Act of Killing
In my opinion, the Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965is one of the least-studied and talked-about political genocides of the 20th century. In order to understand the relevance of The Act of Killing, it is fundamental to have an understanding as well as a good sense of the wider historical context in which the mass killings were apart. The killings initially started in 1965, when members of the so-called “30 September Movement” assassinated six Indonesian army generals and announced that they had taken President Sukarno under their protection. However, the army quickly suppressed the leftist movement and launched a killing spree of alleged communists, whom they blamed for the coup. Even though Indonesian communist sympathizers were primarily targeted, hundreds of thousands of others, such as critics of the military and members of the ethnic Chinese minority, were also killed. It is estimated that between 500,000 to more than one million people were slaughtered. Some more recent estimates even estimate the number at three million people killed.
The mass liquidation of leftists was a pivotal event in the transition to the “New Order” and the elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a political force, having a wider impact on the global Cold War. This upheaval led to the fall of President Sukarno, the nation’s first president and a leader of the anti-Dutch independence movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the commencement of Suharto’s three-decade authoritarian presidency. By 1967, Suharto and his right-wing New Order administration were officially ruling Indonesia.
Although Suharto resigned from his political role in 1998 (and died a decade later), this very same regime—the one that had the mentioned massacre in its conscience more than 50 years ago—remains in control of Indonesia. As a result, the now-elderly executioners are treated like”superstars” in the country. And this is the context in which The Act of Killing comes in.
The Act of Killing: The Killers
Various international newspapers from the UK (The Telegraph), the United States of America (The New York Times) and Australia (The Australian) have described The Act of Killing as “mind-blowing” or as “one-of-a-kind”. In spite of these empowering reviews, one may find that not many critics declare that they actually “like” the movie, or that they would want to see it again. John Oliver on The Daily Show most likely summed up the film best when he exclaimed: ‘It took me two hours to watch it, about three days to get over it’.Thus, even though the documentary is one of the most thought-provoking movies ever produced, due to its raw portrayal of human experience and scenes that are difficult to process, it is not a film where it is appropriate to describe it with the word “like”.
After watching The Act of Killing, I came to the conclusion that the documentary is surrounded by a surrealistic connotation. To elaborate further, the film frames its content as a sensationalistic form of spectacle. As previously recognized by Sutopo, Oppenheimer explores “disturbing taken-for-granted notions of ‘civilization’ in the minds of the audience”. The documentary continuously offers various scenes that display this. For example, the viewers can notice “surreal absurdity” by paying attention to Congo Anwar’s vulgarity in describing detailed techniques of killing and torture on the roof of the Medan Post newspaper office, the longstanding arrogance of Pemuda Pancasila in the local and national contexts (not only related to mass killings but also to everyday life), and the status accorded to the killers as national heroes.
All of these scenes were strategically placed in the movie by Oppenheimer to demonstrate how sensationally and banally the events of 1965 massacre were understood in Indonesia. As stated by Oppenheimer himself on The Daily Show: “It was like going to Germany 40 years after World War II and seeing the Nazis still in charge.” To stretch the absurdity of these events, even more, the events of 1965 are told through re-enactment. The director had the executioners re-enact some of their killings.
One of the central figures of The Act of Killing is the aforementioned Congo, an elderly former executioner responsible for up to 1,000 murders. With colorful clothes and a broad smile, Congo, a leader of Pancasila, seems to enjoy the attention of cameras. Throughout the film, he appears to be highly likable and charismatic, almost appearing to be like one’s grandfather. Not only does this emphasize the absurdity of a political situation where a killer cheerfully talks about and re-enacts his killings, but it also creates a mixture of emotions when one realizes it is hard to believe that someone as charismatic and friendly-looking as Congo could have committed these gruesome acts of killing.
The movie effectively disrupts the generally accepted dichotomy between killers and victims and poses new questions such as “what it means to be a killer’, and “how we can define a killer”. With that said, The Act of Killing distinguishes itself from other movies focused on mass killings and genocides by showing murderers as ordinary and fathomable. In this sense, the film is not a documentary about genocide, but about an exposé of a present-day regime, about how victors justify their actions, and the effects of those justifications and coming into understanding that human experiences cannot be described in black and white terms. Watching Congo with his grandchildren or Congo’s partner-in-crime, Adi, with his family in a shopping mall, returns them from the realms of monstrosity and potentially puts them in the adjacent seat on a bus or in the queue in front of you at the checkout. As previously maintained by Michel Foucault:‘massacres may have become vital but they are also the dull, grey work of undistinguished people’.
The Act of Killing: Indonesian Society
With regard to my second point, the impact of The Act of Killing Indonesian society was on Adi’s mind during the whole filming. After one of his re-enactment where the victim was played by a man whose step-father was likely murdered by a death squad, Adi says that this film possibly changes the entire narrative of the 1965 history. As explained, for years Indonesian society has been taught that the communists were the cruel ones. Under Indonesia’s New Order regime, anti-leftist propaganda was systematically produced and circulated by the repressive and ideological state apparatuses. In addition, techniques of repression were employed and expanded through popular culture media, such as the film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Betrayal of PKI) to undermine and counter leftists. The Betrayal of PKI was fully endorsed by the New Order regime and aired annually on 30th September to commemorate the Sacred Pancasila and successful suppression of the communist sympathizers. The systematic and ideologically-motivated use of propaganda also extended its reach to education, specifically, in the creation a historiography of Indonesia by military historian NugrohoNotosutanto. All these actions were attempts to marginalize the left and maintain an ‘equilibrium’ in Indonesia during the New Order era. However, acting out these murders in The Act of Killing shows that the right-wing executioners were actually the antagonists.
Within Indonesia, there were diverse reactions to the documentary feature in 2012. For those involved in social justice, the film was considered to be an eye-opener for the silent majority and provoked Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights to the issue a statement. In the statement, Indonesian society was prompted to recognize the terror, repression, and atrocities on which its contemporary history has been built. As a consequence, The Act of Killing has been screened thousands of times in Indonesia as well as around the world. This has helped catalyze a transformation in how Indonesia understands its past and has allowed the media and public alike to investigate the genocide, and to debate the links between the moral catastrophe of the killings and the moral catastrophe of the present-day regime. Moreover, The Act of Killing also attracted the attention of the national TEMPO Magazine, which published a special double-edition on the executioners of the 1965 mass killings and expanded the coverage to include not only the executioners from North Sumatra but also those from other Indonesian regions.
However, for others, including state apparatuses and paramilitary religious groups, the content of the film was seen as threatening, with the potential to disturb their established privilege in society. As a matter of fact, there were real efforts from within these factions to ban the screenings. If banned, this decision would not only affect public spaces, such as movie festivals and cinemas but also universities, where freedom of expression is typically highly regarded. The main arguments for prohibiting the film often reproduced the same jargon from the previous military regime. In one instance, The Act of Killing was labeled to be communist propaganda, threatening the social harmony of Indonesian society by twisting the formal history of the nation. Despite these efforts, screenings and discussions were safely held at various academic and political ‘think-tanks’, NGOs, and independent organizations. When the film was nominated for an Academy award, the Indonesian president’s spokesman acknowledged that the 1965 genocide was a crime against humanity and that Indonesia needs reconciliation – but in its own time. While this was not an embrace of the film, it was incredible, because it represents an about-face for the government: until then, it had maintained that the killings were all justified, heroic, and glorious.
Confronting and controversial, The Act of Killing aims to explain the politics of the past in Indonesia. As previously suggested, the movie shapes and shifts our understanding of terms such as “victim” and “murderer”. It makes us ponder by demonstrating that there is no universal definition of these terms; the meaning of such words change depending on what side of the paradigm we stand on. For example, being a killer does not mean to be always ostracized, but just the same, it does not mean to be necessarily unpleasant-looking. People with a murderous past may be charming, friendly, and family oriented.
However, this is not the only lesson this documentary feature teaches us. It also teaches us to speak out and to open up the debates…
writer Katarina Krajcirovicova School of Gender Studies and Law University of London