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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of Asian history and politics at the Australian National University.
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.
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.
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.
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?
"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?
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.
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
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.'"
„Im Zeitalter der Straflosigkeit“
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...
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.
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.
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)
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.