Jun 29, 2022 Last Updated 4:52 AM, Jun 27, 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


#32 +3 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 +19 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 +31 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 +52 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

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