Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking new film raises disturbing questions about why perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings still enjoy impunity for their actions
Opening on to a scene of a giant fish on the banks of Lake Toba, North Sumatra, from which dancing girls emerge, before shifting to a bizarre first-take scene at a waterfall, where we can hear a director reminding those in the shot that ‘These are close ups! Don’t let the camera catch you looking bad!’; before cutting to a grimy back street in Medan, and the outside of one of the city’s vast malls, framed by a flickering McDonald’s sign, we know that Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film The Act of Killing will take us somewhere we have never been before. The result is truly spectacular. In the film, Indonesia’s dark past and morally dirty present collide, exposing deep historical traumas that refuse to go away.
The Act of Killing, or Jagal (‘Executioner’ or ‘Execution’) as the film is called in its Indonesian release, provides us with a major contribution to our understanding of the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia. Contrary to what many viewers may expect, however, The Act of Killing is not a traditional historical documentary or a simple re-enactment of the killings. Rather, the film is an example of cinéma vérité, in which the role of the camera and filmmaker is hidden neither from the film’s subjects nor from its audience.
Origins of the film
The concept of The Act of Killing was born out of Oppenheimer’s frustrations while filming The Globalization Tapes in North Sumatra’s plantation belt in 2002, where he became aware that contemporary exploitation of plantation workers was intimately tied to the massacre of plantation worker union members in 1965. Members of this survivor community, Oppenheimer has explained, ‘were afraid... to speak on camera about [the violence]. They explained that the killers were living all around us… and it would be dangerous if the killers saw them speaking to me about what happened.’ They suggested, however, that he could interview the killers.
Oppenheimer was shocked to realise that perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings were indeed happy and even proud to speak about their involvement, boasting about what they claimed to have done. As Oppenheimer began to interview perpetrators for this new project he has explained that he began to became aware that the story he was telling was not the story of ‘what happened in 1965’ per se, but rather the story of what was happening in the present such that these men felt so ‘comfortable boasting about their crimes.’
The Act of Killing explores why perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings continue to enjoy impunity for their crimes, it also presents the topic of the killings with refreshing directness. Most of the film consists of a disturbing and harrowing journey into the world and thoughts of the film’s main protagonist, Anwar Congo, a member of the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) paramilitary group, who acted as an executioner during the 1965 killings, and his friends and fellow perpetrators, such as Adi Zulkadry, who, along with Anwar’s trusty sidekick Herman Koto, a younger member of Pemuda Pancasila, attempt to bring their memories and imaginations to life to create a ‘beautiful’ Hollywood-style ‘family movie’ about the killings.
There was no need to trick Anwar and Adi and the other perpetrators to appear in the film or to make the revelations they do. Nor does the film use a hidden camera or stealthy shooting. As Oppenheimer has explained in a series of interviews released to the press, ‘I didn’t have to convince them to be in the film. They wanted to be. They loved American movies. I came in as an American making a movie. America supported what they did [in 1965] 100%... [T]hey simply assumed that I was on their side. I didn’t have to use euphemisms, words like ‘kill’ (membunuh) or ‘exterminate’ (menumpas or memusnahkan) had a heroic connotation in North Sumatran discourse, provided the victims were ‘communist’’.
To gain the protagonists’ trust, Oppenheimer has explained, he simply approached them in ‘the same way as you would gain any human being’s trust’, by treating them with ‘kindness, openness, and listening to their stories.’ ‘You must remember,’ Oppenheimer continues, ‘there was nothing for them to be suspicious of. They didn’t feel like they had done anything that needed to be kept hidden. On the contrary, they felt their deeds were worthy of celebration, and that is precisely the presenting symptom of the terrible social and moral illness that the film attempts to examine and diagnose.’
It is the fact that the film’s protagonists speak so candidly in full knowledge that they are being recorded that makes their testimony so powerful. Anwar, Adi and their friends may exaggerate some of their claims, but this suspicion can only leads us to ask: in what sort of a society is boasting about participating in crimes against humanity something that is considered to be tolerable and even status enhancing?
Violence brought to life
The dystopian fantasy The Act of Killing brings to life gives us deep insight into the mentalities of the perpetrators and the ways in which they continue to present themselves. Unsurprisingly the depictions presented in the film are extremely violent. Two distinct types of violence are depicted in the film through acted scenes. The first is a stylised violence which gives the film its shock value; the second is more realistic, less showy but ultimately more disturbing.
One example of stylised violence in the film can be found in the scenes in which Anwar is decapitated by Herman, who is dressed, for reasons unknown, in a red and gold bikini with a feathered tiara on his head. As Anwar’s head, replaced by a mannequin, is finally severed, we hear the voice of a well-known Medan based TVRI soap opera director, who had volunteered to help Anwar create the fiction scenes, encourage Herman to laugh maniacally as he holds up the severed head and licks at its dripping blood. Later we cut to a connecting scene in which Anwar’s mutilated and decapitated ‘body’ lies dumped in a jungle clearing, with his actual head propped on a mound overseeing the scene. From this vantage point Anwar interacts with Herman, who sits over Anwar’s body, wiping blood from the corpse onto his own face and Anwar’s face, before placing Anwar’s ‘liver’ and ‘penis’ in his mouth, and rubbing them up against Anwar’s face. A group of monkeys then descend from the trees to eat Anwar’s ‘flesh’.
We are not necessarily being asked to believe that this is 'what happened', but rather, we are being invited to descend into a dark and terrifying world in which anything is permissible. The scene of Herman wiping Anwar’s blood on to his face also has clear parallels with the official government propaganda film on the killings Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of the G30S/PKI), in which the daughter of one of the six slain military generals, a victim of the ‘communist violence’ used to justify the massacres, wipes her father’s blood on her face to symbolise the nation’s descent into violence.
Similarly, it is interesting to note that in one of the film’s most striking scenes, set at a TV studio, in which Anwar and Adi are having their faces done up by makeup artists to look like victims of the violence, their makeup is also modelled from a scene in Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, in which Major General Raden Suprapto, his face covered in blood, has been tortured and is about to be killed at Lubang Buaya to the wild screams of members of the Indonesian Communist Party’s youth and women’s organisations. Historians have explained that the scene was fabricated for the purpose of propaganda.
Why Anwar and Adi would choose to be made up to look like one of the murdered generals is not explained. Perhaps by invoking official propaganda about the killings, in which the deaths of half a million communist party members and sympathisers is subsumed within the story of the killing of the six army officers, they wish to justify their own acts of violence. They are perpetrators dressed up as victims, but not as their own victims but as the ‘victims’ of their victims. This unsettling of official narratives of the violence is extremely powerful. It is as if the two parallel stories of the violence, the official propaganda version, and the lived experience of the killings as retold by Anwar and Adi, are colliding in their minds and through the film.
The second type of violence depicted in the film is more realist. It occurs primarily in several interrogation scenes. Stripped of lurid showmanship, these scenes give us the greatest insight into a world about which few survivors have been able to tell us and are arguably the most disturbing parts of the film. In one scene, apparently a dress rehearsal, Herman leads a man named Suryono in to be interrogated, offering him a cigarette and a drink of water because he appears scared. ‘We believe this man’s a communist’, Adi announces, before explaining, ‘After we decided to kill them, there were many reactions. Some prayed.’
‘Come on, pray!’ an extra urges Suryono.
Suryono is encouraged to mumble and look terrified.
‘Did you tell them they were going to die angrily or quietly?’ the extra then asks, wanting to know if he should tell Suryono ‘coldly’ that he is about to be killed.
‘Normally’, Adi explains. ‘I tried to make them accept that they were going to die.’
‘Anwar, teach us how to torture,’ the extra then requests.
Anwar casually picks up a machete, which the extra proceeds to take and hold to Suryono’s neck. ‘Should I scare him?’
‘Yes’, Anwar replies as the man begins to make a threatening cutting movement.
‘Beg him not to’, Suryono is instructed.
‘Now blindfold him and gag him too’, Anwar instructs. During the killings, Anwar explains, ‘We always had wire ready. It was our main tool. And when we wrap it around his neck, he can’t see what’s happening and all of a sudden he’s being strangled.’ Anwar then breaks out into the noise of a person being strangled to death. The scene continues with a retake until Suryono breaks down sobbing.
The casualness with which Anwar and Adi help to direct this scene is striking. They speak with such authority and yet with such normality that we can truly believe that these two men are speaking from experience, recalling the acts of violence they repeated nightly during the killings. But this scene also has a deeper poignancy.
Oppenheimer has explained that he did not know at the time that Suryono had just told the men prior to acting in the interrogation scene that his own father had been murdered during the killings. Oppenheimer explains that Suryono had initially told the story as if he was merely speaking about something he had heard from someone else, and the crew, concerned that they were running out of time in the TV studio, were growing impatient, and had not understood the relevance of Suryono’s story. Oppenheimer was mortified when he realised some time later his mistake in allowing the scene to go ahead. He called Suryono to apologise, only to be told by Suryono’s wife that Suryono had passed away.
Adi and his friends, however, have no such excuse for re-enacting scenes from the violence against an actual survivor. In this scene, Anwar and Adi, bizarrely made up as victims, re-enact violence against an actual victim, who they treat as a perpetrator. The complexity of this situation is not unlike that which is played out each day for all survivors of the 1965-66 mass killings, whose status as victims continues to be denied by the Indonesian state.
In a later interrogation scene, set in a darkened office, a man dressed in a peasant’s shirt and sarong is placed calmly on a wooden table, before being garrotted from below by Anwar, who struggles earnestly to extinguish the man’s life. In yet another interrogation scene, we watch Anwar being beaten with a plank of wood to extract a forced confession. He is then garrotted with the wire technique he is so fond of boasting about by Herman; an experience which causes him great emotional distress as he appears to be reminded of his own personal memories of the killings. Both the intimacy and the casualness of these depictions of murder are deeply sobering.
The question of agency
The Act of Killing also sheds light on the systematic and state sponsored nature of the 1965-66 killings. This link is made most explicitly in the film’s opening narration text, which explains that ‘The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings.’ This relationship is then explored throughout the film primarily through its showcasing of the role of the paramilitary organisation, Pemuda Pancasila, of which Anwar is a lifelong and celebrated member.
When asked what his relationship was with the military, one of Anwar’s associates explains, ‘We had no formal relationship. But after we captured the communist youth, and beat them to a pulp, we gave them to the military, but the military wouldn’t take them. They said, ‘just dump them in the river!’’ This is where the Pemuda Pancasila and other paramilitary groups came in.
This relationship between the state, the anti-communist elite and paramilitary organisations such as the Pemuda Pancasila continues to this day. This continuing relationship is demonstrated in The Act of Killing through shots taken at a recent mass rally of Pemuda Pancasila, which Anwar attends with the status of a celebrity. At this rally, Pemuda Pancasila members dressed in their military style uniforms are addressed by Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the national leader of the organisation, who tells the audience that ‘All Pancasila youth members are heroes. From exterminating the communists, to fighting neo-communists and left-wing extremists.’ Later, on a golf course, Yapto confirms casually, “We killed them all. That’s what happened. May I hit the ball now?”
Responding to criticisms that the film may not have made the role of the military behind the violence sufficiently explicit, Oppenheimer has replied, ‘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... The role of the military is probably the most documented aspect of [the history of the 1965-66 mass killings] until now.’
It could be argued, however, that the role of the military behind the violence has yet to be sufficiently explored in the specialist literature on the 1965-66 mass killings. We know, for example, that the vast majority of evidence from the killings appears to scream to the complicity of the military in the violence, the exact chains of command which allowed this occur and the exact relationship between the military and paramilitary organisations such as Pemuda Pancasila during the killings, however, is yet to be fully documented. In this regard alone The Act of Killing makes a major contribution to knowledge about the killings.
Oppenheimer’s call to action
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a groundbreaking film, which has already begun to send shock waves through Indonesia and the international community. Allowing perpetrators to incriminate themselves so publically in the violence of the killings acts to short circuit almost half a century of propaganda which has sought to justify or deny the horrific events of 1965. Coupled with Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights’ new report into the violence, The Act of Killing has thrust the 1965-66 mass killings into the foreground of public discussion. It can only be hoped that the world will not continue to ignore the violence of 1965. We can join Oppenheimer’s call to action by encouraging screenings of the film and initiating discussions about its significance.
Jess Melvin (email@example.com) is a PhD student with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, where she is writing her thesis on the 1965-66 mass killings in Aceh.
The Act of Killing will screen at the Sydney Film Festival (5-16 June 2013), and the Melbourne International Film Festival (25 July-11 August), before being released in cinemas later in the winter.