The filmmaker explains that The Act of Killing exposes the imagination of terror
Through The Act of Killing you have been able to expose the role of Pemuda Pancasila in the killings. How would you respond to comments that the film could have gone further to expose the role of the military behind the violence?
The film explains the role of the military numerous times, certainly enough for a non-specialist audience who simply needs to understand that there were mass killings orchestrated by the army but outsourced in part to paramilitary death squads: Ibrahim Sinik and Anwar talk about it numerous times, it is discussed in the opening text, and General Sarwo Edhie’s relationship to Ibrahim Sinik is discussed in the talk show. Any more references to the military’s role in organising the death squads felt repetitive in the editing.
This is because the film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced and celebrated - in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves. It is an exposé of what happens to us, as individual human beings and entire societies (and these two things are inseparable, of course) when we build our normality on a mountain of corpses, on terror and lies. The film is about Indonesia now, at the time I filmed it, and the institutions and individuals in the film are shaped by what they experienced.
As Anonymous has written eloquently, the portrait of Anwar and his friend’s death squad is but a single pixel of a much bigger picture. Anwar is one of perhaps 10,000 executioners. His death squad is one of thousands. Pancasila Youth is one of many paramilitary organisations enlisted by the army. . . .The politicians in the film represent many corrupt politicians who have used fear as their primary political and economic capital.
Since the fundamental provocation for The Act of Killing is an effort to understand the function of perpetrators’ boasting, and thereby to expose a regime of impunity, terror and corruption, it would not make sense to focus on military commanders who are not boastful, for the very same reason that they outsourced the killings in the first place: so that they could wash their hands of what they did. (There was probably a second reason: to implicate the entire society in the genocide, to ensure everybody is somehow a collaborator...)
This is a film about the imagination of a regime of terror today. It is not a historical documentary. It never pretends to be an exhaustive account of the events of 1965. It seeks to understand the impact of the killing and terror today, on individuals and institutions. It helps to break a 47-year silence, so that the truth of what happened can start to come out. It is now up to other filmmakers, historians, novelists and artists to investigate what happened in other regions. Only gradually, then, will an exhaustive portrait of what happened emerge.
Finally, several Indonesians have written that this film exposes an aspect of the killings that were rumoured but for which, until now, they had no evidence: the participation of all manner of paramilitary groups (not just Ansor, which has been documented before.) The role of the military is probably the most documented aspect of this history until now.
How would you describe the relationship between the Pemuda Pancasila and the military during the 1965 violence? Which group initiated the violence and which group holds ultimate responsibility for the killings?
They both bear responsibility, of course! But I would submit that PP and the military cannot really be considered separate institutions, particularly in 1965. PP played a paramilitary function on behalf of the military. It was recruited and managed by the military, and the military’s own political party IPKI. Obviously, as the film says on numerous occasions, the military gave the green light, and initiated the violence.
What steps did you take to confirm whether Anwar Congo and the other individuals who appeared in the film’s testimony was verifiable?
I always interviewed people who knew each other separately, and extensively (4-10 hours of footage per person) first, without them knowing that I had met and was filming the other. Adi, Anwar, Ibrahim Sinik, and Soaduon Siregar all worked together, so I was able to piece together what happened by comparing their accounts.
The Act of Killing presents a disturbing and grotesque view of contemporary Indonesian society. In your opinion, is contemporary Indonesian society disturbing and grotesque? Why are individuals such as Herman, the Head of Pemuda Pancasila and the man with the ‘extremely limited’ crystal ware able to flourish in the current political climate in Indonesia?
It is always grotesque and absurd when normality is founded on violence. But our reality is created through fantasy, through narrative. We imagine ourselves and construct our most wild notions through banal, second hand, third rate stories... The moral emptiness of Haji Anif, with his very limited crystal collection, is the moral emptiness of capitalism, a system in which we depend for our survival on other peoples’ suffering.
The reaction [to the film] has been overwhelming. The film has generated a lot of discussion, and very strong positive reactions. But the really powerful thing, something I didn’t anticipate, is how devastating people find the film. Audiences leave the cinema speechless, nauseous, tearful, almost inconsolable. Through their pain, I begin to reconnect with years of pain that I think I didn’t let myself feel during the making of the film, that I couldn’t let myself feel.
Just like Anwar cannot consistently allow himself to feel his pain -- or else he couldn’t continue with life. Similarly, I couldn’t have continued making the film if I allowed myself to feel the horror and pain of it all… I grew numb, and I am not proud of that. The symptom, of course, that my entire crew grew numb was the graveyard humour we developed. The challenge, artistically and ethically, was never to lose sight of what it all means, how horrible it all is, despite the inevitable repression and numbness. In a way, the numbness was good, or at least necessary, for how else could I have made this without it? In any case, all this pain is coming back to me through the audience’s reactions.
I think by identifying with Anwar, audiences are forced to confront the fact that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe.
I think the whole tradition in which documentaries tend to tell the stories of survivors and victims exists, in part, to reassure ourselves that we are not perpetrators, that we are beautiful souls doing beautiful things for people. In fact, we are much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe.
Everything in our daily lives - our clothes, our food - is haunted by the suffering of the people who produced them. The people who made the computer on which I am typing these words live in dormitories with netting on their balconies so that they don’t jump off in despair, so terrible and hopeless are their working and living conditions. Why? Because men like Anwar and his friends are on the ground terrorising them so that they don’t dare struggle for better conditions, and gain some control over their lives.
We are, in this sense, all guests at a cannibalistic feast. We may not be as close to the slaughter as Anwar and his friends, but we are at the table. And we know this, yet we prefer not to think about it – or to reassure ourselves that by buying organic food we are not buying into the system. But, as Tolstoy pointed out, the system by which we live and feed ourselves depends on other peoples’ suffering.
We see this in The Act of Killing. We see this in the shots of Anwar with his grandchildren, in the shots of Adi drifting through the mall, numb and listless, with his family. I think something inside of all of us dies when we kill, and it also dies when we depend, for our survival, on the suffering of others. This is tragic, sad, painful, even nauseating.
I think the film gets audiences in touch with the experience of this alienation. And one of the most powerful reactions I’ve had from the film has been people coming up to me struggling trying to find words to describe that experience. They use words like ‘alienation,’ ‘loneliness,’ ‘sadness,’ ‘disconnection.’ They’re trying to describe a feeling that we don’t even know we have.
The violence of the re-enactment conjured the spectres of a deeper violence, the terrifying history of which everybody in Indonesia is somehow aware, and upon which the perpetrators have built their rarefied bubble of air conditioned shopping malls, gated communities, and ‘very, very limited’ crystal figurines.
What do you hope will be the main impact of the film?
The film is already having an impact on human rights in Indonesia. Indonesian historian Asvi Warman Adam has called The Act of Killing one of the three pillars in the history of human rights in post-Suharto Indonesia.
For Indonesians old enough to remember the genocide, the film makes it impossible to continue denying what everybody in that generation already knows.
For Indonesians too young to remember the genocide, but who grew up during the Suharto dictatorship, and who remember the anti-communist propaganda, the film is the nail in the coffin of the official history. For younger Indonesians who do not remember the Suharto dictatorship, the film confirms the general sense that there is something rotten in Indonesia’s fledgling democracy, something that prevents the supposedly democratic institutions from expressing the popular will. Moreover, the film reveals the source of the problem: terror and corruption, and it shows how both have their roots in impunity for a genocide that has, grotesquely, been celebrated.
Joshua Oppenheimer communicated with Jess Melvin (email@example.com) by email.