Dec 05, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Review: An act of manipulation?

Credit: Final Cut for Real
Published: Apr 20, 2013

Robert Cribb

Credit: Final Cut for Real

Filmed over several years in the North Sumatra capital, Medan, The Act of Killing is a sprawling work that encompasses three distinct, though related, stories. The core of the film consists of the reminiscences of an elderly gangster who took part in the massacres of Communists in 1965-66. Anwar Congo appears early on in the film as a genial old man, but his subdued charm evaporates as he begins to recount, and then to re-enact, the killings that he carried out. He takes the film crew to the rooftop where he garrotted his victims with wire to avoid making a mess with blood. Using an associate as a stand-in, he demonstrates the technique of slipping a wire noose over the victim’s head and twisting it tight for as long as was needed to bring death. One of Congo’s friends describes killing his girlfriend’s father, while another recalls his rape of 14 year old girls, exulting in the cruelty of the act.

Pleasure in killing

The pleasure that Congo and his friends take in the memory of cruelty makes The Act of Killing a difficult film to watch. Not surprisingly, audiences have viewed it as a courageous revelation of the darkest secrets in Indonesia’s recent past. Yet the film’s depiction of the terrible months from October 1965 to March 1966 is deeply misleading. Although the opening text tells viewers that the killings were carried out under the auspices of the Indonesian army, the military is invisible in the film’s subsequent representation of the massacres.

The killings are presented as the work of civilian criminal psychopaths, not as a campaign of extermination, authorised and encouraged by the rising Suharto group within the Indonesian army and supported by broader social forces frightened by the possibility that the Indonesian communist party might come to power. At a time when a growing body of detailed research on the killings has made clear that the army played a pivotal role in the massacres, The Act of Killing puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life.

Bravado, memory and manipulation

The film makes no attempt to evaluate the truth of Congo’s confessions. Despite persistent indications that he is mentally disturbed, and that he and his friends are boasting for the sake of creating shock, the film presents their claims without critique. There is no reason to doubt that Congo and his friends took part in the violence of 1965-66, and that the experience left deep mental scars, but did they kill as many as they claim? At times they sound like a group of teenage boys trying to outbid each other in tales of bravado.

There is no voice-over in the film. The protagonists seem to speak unprompted and undirected. Towards its end, however, the film portrays an incident which, to my mind, casts doubt on its apparent claim to present an unmediated portrait of the aged killer. Returning to the rooftop scene of the murders, Congo seems to experience remorse. Twice, he vomits discreetly into a convenient trough on the edge of the rooftop, before walking slowly and sadly downstairs. By this time in the film, Oppenheimer has made clear that Congo regarded him as a friend. Did Oppenheimer really just keep the cameras running and maintain his distance while his friend was in distress? Did Congo really think nothing of vomiting in front of the camera, under studio lights, and walking away as if the camera were not there? The incident seems staged.

The sense of manipulation is all the stronger in those scenes that present the second story. Congo and his friends plan a film about their exploits in 1965-66, and The Act of Killing is interspersed with both excerpts from the finished film and scenes of prior discussion and preparation for the filming. Neither the plot nor the structure of this film-within-a-film is ever made clear. Instead we see extracts that are alternately vicious (torture scenes and the burning of a village) and bizarre. A fat gangster called Herman Koto appears repeatedly in drag, sometimes in a tight pink dress, sometimes in a costume recalling an extravagant Brazilian mardi gras. Some scenes resemble the American gangster films that Congo tells us he used to watch; some are more like the modern Indonesian horror-fantasy genre, complete with supernatural beings.

The apparently finished scenes that we see from this film-within-a-film are slick. The cinematography is expert, the costumes and sets are professional. It seems too much to imagine that a retired gangster like Congo or a cross-dressing thug like Koto could have produced something of this quality on his own. Nor did they need to, with a professional film maker like Oppenheimer in house. Yet the film is presented as the work of Congo and his friends. It is hard not to sense a betrayal here. Congo and his associates seem to have been lured into working with Oppenheimer, only to have their bizarre and tasteless fantasies exposed to the world to no real purpose other than ridicule.

The politics of gangsterism

In the third major element in the film, Oppenheimer takes us beyond the confessional and the studio into the sordid world of the Medan underworld. Actually, it is hardly an underworld. Gangsters hold high government office, members of the paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth, PP) strut through the streets, a gangster called Safit Pardede openly extorts protection money from Chinese traders in the Medan market, and the nation’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, attends a PP convention to congratulate the gangsters on their entrepreneurial spirit. The title of the film-within-a-film, Born Free, deliberately echoes the identity claimed by the PP for itself as preman, or 'free men'.

Oppenheimer films the PP leader, Yapto, as an accomplished capo who can be suave or coarse as required. Another PP leader proudly shows off his collection of expensive European kitsch. ‘Very limited’, he grunts, self-satisfied, as he paws piece after piece. The condescension that Oppenheimer shows to the Indonesian criminal nouveau riche is unfortunate because it trivialises the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster establishment and its close connections with political power.

Whatever might be criticised in the rest of the film, anyone interested in modern Indonesia will want to watch the scenes in which Safit Pardede prowls through the Medan market collecting cash from his small-trader victims. Manipulative and misleading The Act of Killing may be; it is nonetheless an extraordinarily powerful film which we should not ignore.

Robert Cribb (robert.cribb@anu.edu.au) is a professor of Asian history and politics at the Australian National University.

 

Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013

Comments  

#32 +4 Briar 2016-03-19 09:14
The chance that Anwat and his cronies did not commit these atrocities is non-existent. These crimes are corroborated by all of his friends, members of the government, the man who decided who wold live and die (the editor of the newspapaer) and Anwars own recollection. Between 1 and 2.5 million people were brutally murdered. Its not like this is "history according to Anwar" I honestly believe this man should be killed for the countless lives he has ruined. No punishment could ever fit his crimes. What would lead anyone to think that these individuals made up their involvement in these crimes is totally beyond me.
#31 +6 Stephanie Petagno 2015-09-05 19:57
Others have noted the rampant contradictions in the review. But I'll only add this. One wonders if the chronically negative picture this paints of the Indonesian establishment (and not a few psychopaths) was tainted with a different political spin, perhaps the reviewer would be less critical. One also has to question if the reviewer is being honest; he knew what he would say before he saw the film. It's either lies or wilful contrariness.

Herman actually has some acting chops, and I suspect would make quite a fine actor, if he had a conscience. The most disturbing scene sees him at his worst.
#30 +20 Paul Cooke 2014-06-24 10:42
why do you say Congo 'vomits discreetly'? He doesn't. That's the whole point of that scene. Congo wants to show us he's remorseful so fakes a vomit. The director wants to show us he's acting and to reveal something about Congo - that he has a desire to be seen as remorseful. I'm surprised you've used something you didn't see to make a bold claim about the directors manipulation and 'friendship' with Congo.
#29 +9 Paul Cooke 2014-06-24 10:37
Why do you say that Congo 'vomits discretly'? He doesn't vomit at all. That's the whole point of that scene. He's acting out a vomit but it's fake, there is none. He wants to show that he's remorseful. But the director wants to show us he's acting. I'm surprised you've used something you haven't seen to make a bold claim about the directors manipulation.
#28 -22 Wendy Ames 2014-04-11 07:33
This is the best critique I have read of the film to-date.
#27 -8 Mike 2014-03-13 07:10
I couldn't help but feel that some of the scenes were contrived, especially the end of the film that called for a poignant conclusion out of necessity, I guess, or else the cameras would just roll on into oblivion. But after all the talk of murder, political corruption and countless injustices to God only knows how many people, the whole thing left me empty and hopeless.
#26 +33 Nick 2014-03-03 09:38
I thought that Congo's dry heaving was his fake attempt to show remorse and that this is so obviously fake that the film maker left it in to show exactly that.
Sometimes I wonder if the pedantic pseudo-intellectual movie critics would even have one half the guts that it must have taken to make this film. Just saying.
#25 +18 kopeng hasibuan 2014-02-17 02:06
i am from north sumatera, at that time 1965, the pancasila youth group dan islamic side did all the killings of comunist members and chinese, supported by the army. at that the the whole rivers of sumatera full of death bodies,many of them are gang raped, beheaded, from baby to elderly comunist members,included chinese (symbol of comunist).
#24 +53 Seth 2014-02-09 06:46
"Did Oppenheimer really just keep the cameras running and maintain his distance while his friend was in distress?"

Ridiculous question. For one, there's no indication that Oppenheimer ever considered Congo his "friend". Congo is a mass-murderer, and Oppenheimer was interested in him as a subject. Any sort of "friendship" you see comes from the necessary ability for any filmmaker, or really any storyteller, and especially documentarians, to sympathize with their subjects no matter how terrible they are. He kept the camera running because he is a professional.
#23 +27 Fernando M. 2014-02-01 02:39
I don't agree with this review. I'm brazilian, had never heard or read anything about the 65-66 massacres before - actually didn't have any information about Indonesia's recent past at all - and nonetheless it was perfectly clear for my, from the movie, from the very beginning of the movie on; that the killings those premem did were part of a bigger campaign organised and financed by the government and the military. Don't worry, this history is getting to the viewers, rest assured
#22 +1 Erwin Praatmans 2014-01-27 22:26
I don't think there is nothing wrong with the review. I saw the doc twice today to try to see if there is manipulation in Anwar's face. I could not see it. From all the director's interviews I scanned on the web, I believe that he had hundred hours of material before he made it in a packed two and half hours story.

It shows how "cheap" lives back then and maybe still is now, how killing seems to be just another normal occupation. How some people can go home without stress after their long working day and some other are really haunted by what they have done. There should not be any manipulations with that I would say.
The truth is a perception of the beholders. It will never come out, it always lies in between. Adi's comment struck me most in the interview in the car when he stated that reopening this case is a provocation to fight, and he also claimed that he is ready for the war when the world wants continuous war. But who is the world?
#21 +34 John Leppanen 2013-11-12 04:58
From the third paragraph of the piece:
"The killings are presented as the work of civilian criminal psychopaths, not as a campaign of extermination, authorised and encouraged by the rising Suharto group within the Indonesian army..."

From the second-to-last paragraph of the piece:
"...the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster establishment and its close connections with political power."

So.....which is it?
#20 -3 Faizah Zakaria 2013-08-29 04:35
Jaap and Daniel McGuire: With all due respect, I don't think Robert Cribb's review should be dismissed as "petty academic jealousy" or "typical uninformed critique by an academic". Cribb has been writing and researching about the Indonesian massacres at least since 1990 and is a major contributor to the small literature about this subject. I wouldn't be surprised if Oppenheimer got his part of knowledge of the historical background by reading Cribb's work.

I think the review is fair and it never scaled down the enormity of the tragedy. He merely questioned the methods Oppenheimer used to draw out his subjects' memories and share them. Was there some form of misrepresentation to elicit this unabashed glee in re-enacting their killings? Are these killers representative? These surely are valid questions. There was great variation in the way the massacres played out in different regions of Indonesia and it wouldn't be right to take Oppenheimer's account as defintive.
#19 -17 Zifirdaus Adnan 2013-08-12 21:54
Yes. I agree with Vanessa. The review by Cribb is very much needed to balanced the unfair depiction of the mass killings. The very much criticised theory of psychopath as the root cause of mass killing as in the study of terrorism, is misleading. It inadvertently or deliberately obscures the role of the real mastermind of the killings. In addition to the parties mentioned by Cribb, however, one should not overlook the campaigns by the Communist Party and its supporters from 1960-1965 which earned them a lot of enemy.
#18 +25 Terry Collins 2013-08-12 12:46
@ Andrew.
This is not a film about America, nor is it a "troublingly condescending dynamic between Western audiences and his Indonesian subjects." Whose "subjects" - Suharto's?

Get off your high horse and consider that Indonesians have been brainwashed and that a whole generation was forced to watch 'Pengkhianatan G 30 S-PKI' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pB8yRB93c0) on TV every Sept. 30th, and also in schools, from 1984 - an apt year? - until Suharto's 'abdication' in '98.

Yes, we know that the USA, the UK and Australia provided names of suspected 'communists: creche workers, farmers, writers, artists et al. But the pogrom was also about neighbours settling scores - by the score, or more.

Letting Indonesian know about the lies of preceding generations offers hope for their future - theirs, not yours.

My review: http://jakartaexpat.biz/arts-entertainment/the-act-of-killing/#comments
#17 +32 tempo dulu 2013-08-12 09:10
No, manipulation would be to make a film suggesting that the mass killings did not take place at all - or on a smaller scale. Of course, Joshua's film is imperfect: it's an anecdotal account of what happened. Yet given that this topic is as taboo as porn is in Saudi Arabia, to get first hand accounts of the tragedy is a remarkable achievement in itself.
#16 -11 Andrew 2013-08-11 15:28
Thanks for this. I've had similar concerns. An important film, but as a proxy, the filmmaker sets up a troublingly condescending dynamic between Western audiences and his Indonesian subjects. It felt a little too comfortable sitting in an audience in New York gawking in disbelief at the Indonesians utter lack of self-consciousness about the killings, knowing at the same time that Americans have done little work to recognize the mere existence of this mass murder of historic proportions, much less to acknowledge the US's direct role in supporting the regime that carried it out and the economic incentives that kept that regime in place. I respect Oppenheimer's efforts to tell an important story under difficult circumstances, but I wish he were more transparent with his subjects and with his audience about his role. Still, it's a film that needs to be reckoned with.
#15 +27 John Hayes 2013-08-11 12:32
Bad review. Completely misses the point.
#14 -27 Ian Hughes 2013-07-21 19:59
There is ample evidence in The Act of Killing that Anwar Congo and his murderous companions suffer from the emotional and cognitive disorder called psychopathy, which as far as psychiatric science can tell appears to be a hereditary disorder. Please do not watch this film and believe that these are ordinary men. The evidence in frame after frame points to the fact that these killers are psychopaths - particularly the final scene. I have studied psychoanalysis and have written a book on dangerous personality disorders. Oppenheimer's incredible film is the clearest evidence I have seen that psychopaths are the root cause of mass killings - not just in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 - but the world over. It's greatest value would be that it would waken us up to that fact. http://bit.ly/10YIQ7a
#13 +32 fernando 2013-07-21 15:52
"The condescension that Oppenheimer shows to the Indonesian criminal nouveau riche is unfortunate because it trivializes the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster...." Really? The condescension that Oppenheimer shows? And it trivializes it? C'mon. Maybe you could discuss how he emits the notoriously vague essence of condescension without ever showing himself on camera, and limiting himself to a few soft spoken questions? Or maybe, you could imagine working on a film about mass murderers for 7 years, and then try to imagine how you would act in their company. "The Act of Killing puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life" What? I am interested how you came to that conclusion? It is quite a leap go from a closed study of a small group of horrible criminals, and infer that the film is trying to make a point about a country of 240 million.
#12 -31 Louis N. Proyect 2013-07-21 13:08
Gratified to see another critique in sync with my own. I was the first to pan this movie on Rotten Tomatoes.

http://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/
#11 -19 SAUT 2013-06-21 09:53
"We don't distribute the short version in Indonesia because it's a product made for 'sastra wangi/perfumed literature' market, while the longer one is 'sastra perjuangan/fighting literature' audience. But both are good.'" Yeah and it seems the director and his co-director really enjoy it having their doco praised highly by perfumed critics in the perfumed Western market who care more for "art" than for fighting documentaries.
#10 +13 Triska Baju 2013-06-20 03:22
Actually the director of the film, Joshua, has answered Saut here:
https://soundcloud.com/paramita-soedjono/saut_joshua

And I met the co-director asking the same question, jokingly he said, "We don't distribute the short version in Indonesia because it's a product made for 'sastra wangi/perfumed literature' market, while the longer one is 'sastra perjuangan/fighting literature' audience. But both are good.'"
#9 -11 saut 2013-05-21 04:54
My point is: Why the selection? Would the longer version effect similar critical responses artistically like the shorter one get from film festivals in the West? Aren't these critical responses from film critics that make the doco "important"?
#8 niko 2013-05-20 13:05
A commentator above has said that there were 2 versions of this film. Does the shorter version shown in the West do away with the 3rd element of the film ("The Politics of Gangsterism"...) explored in this article?
#7 -8 Saut 2013-05-07 01:48
Oiya, di bawah ini ada wawancara Joshua dengan Anett Keller dalam sebuah majalah Austria berbahasa Jerman. Mungkin berguna. :)

„Im Zeitalter der Straflosigkeit“
http://www.suedwind-magazin.at/start.asp?ID=251468&rubrik=7&ausg=201212
#6 -15 Saut 2013-05-07 01:03
Finally a cool closed-watching of The Act of Killing! Bravo!!!

Btw, do you know that there are Two versions of this doco? I have seen both versions and the version that is being watched "secretly" all over Indonesia is a longer version of the two. The endings of the two versions are also different. Personally, I prefer the shorter version with its "poetic" ending (here I quote you): Returning to the rooftop scene of the murders, Congo seems to experience remorse. Twice, he vomits discreetly into a convenient trough on the edge of the rooftop, before walking slowly and sadly downstairs. Even the titles of the two versions are different: the shorter one is called "The Act of Killing" while the longer Indonesian version is unpoetically called "Jagal".

I always wonder whether the shorter version which is being watched at film festivals all over the Western world...
#5 +17 Jaap 2013-05-07 00:13
This essay is a typical uninformed critique by an academic trying to gain points by figuring out what is "problematic" - too many university professors hide behind their words.
The film took seven years to make and was done at great risk. To this day, many people involved in the film (including the filmmaker and his associates) cannot appear in Indonesia.
Instead of focusing on details and whether there is manipulation (wake up, ALL media is manipulative), Professor should not try to please "Inside Indonesia" but look at Indonesia's criminal history, one that is revealed and dealt with for the first time with this film. With just a tiny bit of research you could learn that Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Dusan Makaveyev are some of the top filmmakers. Their blessings as producers of this film are well deserved and reflect the high standing of this film.
#4 +30 Daniel D. McGuire 2013-04-27 14:54
Sorry, this article reeks of petty academic jealousy. Oppenheimer has done something that that no one has been able to do - bring world-wide attention to the '65 massacres. The film is making a huge impact around the world as well as in Indonesia. Whatever you think of the film, Oppenheimer has cracked the code of silence. For that alone he should be applauded.
And the military is not "invisible" in the film. A military figure appears during the massacre re-enactments in full uniform, and offers advice. Military figures also appear on stage with the VP when he says "Gangsters get things done." The Pemuda Pancasia parade around in military outfits.
This review reeks of petty academic jealousy.
#3 -16 Saskia 2013-04-22 07:56
" Congo and his associates seem to have been lured into working with Oppenheimer, only to have their bizarre and tasteless fantasies exposed to the world to no real purpose other than ridicule."

Thank you for this really great review, it was about time for a more critical assessment. This really puts it into words so well, the lack of deeper structural assessment, the uncompromising thirst for cinematographic pictures and the disturbing focus on putting individuals on display.

(Aljazeera had an interesting piece on the film: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2012/12/2012121874846805636.html)
#2 Terry Collins 2013-04-22 03:56
"Although the opening text tells viewers that the killings were carried out under the auspices of the Indonesian army, the military is invisible in the film’s subsequent representation of the massacres."

Of course they are. Given the strong family ties of the current leadership of the country to these events, the film would not have been made. As it is, there is no way that it will pass the Board of Censors.

However, now that pirated versions are now online Indonesians can finally discover for themselves, in a familiar fictional context - the "modern Indonesian horror-fantasy genre - that the killings of 65/66 were in fact casual and banal, whoever sanctioned them.

And that, surely, is the true horror.
#1 -12 Vannessa Hearman 2013-04-22 03:44
This is a very thought provoking review, thanks Robert Cribb, and Inside Indonesia for publishing it. Amid the accolades the film has received, it's worth thinking a little more deeply about the film and the cause of historical truth about these massacres.

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