By Alan Mattli
Between 1965 and 1966, Indonesia bore witness to one of the most truculent war atrocities of the 20th century. After successfully blaming the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, for a failed coup d’état, the army, supported by various western governments, called on small-time gangsters from the country’s urban centres to carry out widespread anti-communist purges in order to rid the land of Maoist influence. As a result, more than 500,000 alleged communists were executed. Today, these killings have entered nationalist folklore; President Suharto, who came to power in 1967 and stayed in office for 31 years, elevated them to the status of a foundational myth; the perpetrators never faced criminal prosecution and enjoy great respect throughout modern Indonesia.
However, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stirring documentary The Act of Killing does not delve into the background of these crimes against humanity, nor does it overtly concern itself with how they underpin contemporary Indonesian society. Instead of a historical or socio-cultural approach, Oppenheimer chooses a more intimate, philosophical path, implicitly drawing on the psychological dimension of cinematic representation and Hannah Arendt’s work on the banality of evil.
The premise is delicate in more than one way. Focusing on Anwar Congo, who at the start of the film chirpily recalls killing at least 1,000 people, most of them by strangulation, and allowing him to reenact his deeds on camera using the cinematic modes of his choice raises fundamental questions about the project’s morality. Isn’t Oppenheimer being as nonchalant about the purges as Anwar and his friends, among them the unsettlingly cold-blooded Adi Zulkadry (“War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner”), by only giving the perpetrators a voice? Isn’t the fact that the film contains less historical contextualisation than the first paragraph of this review disrespectful towards Anwar’s victims and their families? Moreover, because it shows the disproportionate amount of power the Pancasila Youth, a right-wing, borderline fascist paramilitary group Anwar helped establish and to whose three million members he is a national hero, wields outside of rigorous government regulation, The Act of Killing may prove dangerous to its Indonesian crew members, which is why 49 of them chose to be credited as “Anonymous”, including one of Oppenheimer’s co-directors.
But while its depiction of a modern Indonesia that glorifies its blood-soaked past, turns a blind eye to the extortion of Chinese immigrants at the hands of the Pancasila Youth, and idealises the idea of “exterminating all communists” – several public figures, including the governor of North Sumatra (Anwar’s and Adi’s home province), an influential newspaper publisher, a deputy minister, and, perhaps most distressingly, a constantly smiling daytime talkshow host, are only too happy to deny a whole group of people the right to live – may prove to be its most significant contribution to actual political discourse, the film cuts much deeper than that as a whole. By giving Anwar Congo a platform to relay and later reenact his actions, The Act of Killing not only prompts the nightmare-stricken grandfather to ultimately confront the implications of his life’s “work”; it forces the viewer to stare into the abyss of the human psyche. The person on display here, dancing on a rooftop where he killed scores of “communists”, is not a barbarous monstrosity that fits neatly into the popular image of the crazed psychopath; it’s a human being.
This is a fact that is difficult to accept, seeing how we’re stuck with a protagonist (of sorts) whose recollections seamlessly move from seeing the latest Hollywood film in the cinema he worked at to murdering people in the style of a routine John Wayne western. Adi, too, laughingly talks about how he walked down Medan’s main street stabbing every Chinese person he came across until he met the father of his Chinese girlfriend: “Mission ‘stab Chinese’ suddenly became mission ‘stab girlfriend’s father’. So I stabbed him”. Interestingly, the titular “act of killing” is a constant worry for both of them: even though they often refer to murder as the cardinal sin, their attention lies on the moment and the circumstance of a murder as opposed to killing per se – a fine yet crucial difference, as evidenced by Anwar, who is not moved by the death of his victims but by them dying against their wishes.
However, in a perhaps overly self-reflexive – albeit not pre-programmed, of course – turn, Anwar’s air of self-confidence begins to falter as his and his friends’ project to turn his experiences during the purges into a movie, a bizarrely camp mixture between film noir, western, and musical, puts him into a communist’s place at one point. All but breaking down, he asks, as he is watching the tape of his own representation of history – a fascinating double inversion that should provide ample opportunity for interpretations by psychoanalytic film scholars –, whether he has sinned. Followed by him revisiting his “killing rooftop”, it’s a devastatingly quiet finale that is both harrowing and strangely cathartic in that it pinpoints the exact moment in which evil comes to recognise itself as such. Whether Anwar, who has since gone on to laud The Act of Killing for showing “what it’s like to be me”, is deserving of pity or redemption is a question this disturbing yet deeply moving film cannot – and rightly does not – give a definitive answer to.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.