The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.
Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.
In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.
The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.
Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.
As shocking as the scale and speed of the Indonesian purge might have been, there is nothing particularly novel about one group of humans taking it upon themselves to eradicate another. The American anthropologist Joseph Tainter argues that complex societies deal with social conflict in a number of different ways. In some cases, societies evolve a set of principles and institutions that allow power sharing and encourage compromise but while these strategies have proved effective throughout human history, they do demand a significant investment of time and energy. Tainter’s best-known book The Collapse of Complex Societies argues that there are times when societies simply cannot spare the time and energy required to build bridges and in these times it is rational for a society to break itself apart into smaller and more manageable chunks. The problem is that while societies like Yugoslavia and the Western Roman Empire could fracture along broad racial and cultural lines, this kind of social fragmentation is not always a viable option. The French physicist Leon Brillouin coined the term Negentropy to refer to the way that living systems such as societies will often deal with entropic forces by exporting entropy to the margins in order to preserve an ordered core. The problem with Indonesia in the mid-1960s was that there was literally nowhere that Suharto and his allies could send an organisation as massive as the PKI other than a shallow grave or the nearest river. As complex and horrifying as the events surrounding the anti-PKI purge may have been, The Act of Killing surveys this history with two very specific question in mind, namely how does a society move forward from this sort of atrocity and how does someone live the rest of their life knowing that they are a mass murderer?
Tony Judt’s Potwar describes the impact of World War II on European society as though it were a form of psychological trauma. In the book’s remarkable opening chapter he not only lists the number of dead, diseased and dislocated but also details the scope of the psychic fallout from six years of brutal industrialised warfare as well as the oppression, occupation, exploitation and collaboration that followed in its wake. Marcel Ophuls’ legendary documentary The Sorrow and The Pity looked in on France a generation after the end of the Nazi occupation and what Ophuls found was that the French people had come to terms with surrender, occupation and collaboration by constructing a series of interlocking fictions that restored national honour whilst allowing political and cultural elites to protect themselves from embarrassing questions. Films like The Sorrow and the Pity along with works such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armee des Ombres and Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein suggest that French society dealt with the atrocities of the occupation by denial, by choosing to forget and working to remain silent. This coping mechanism could not be more different to the one used by the people involved in the Indonesian purges.
The inspiration for The Act of Killing reportedly came from a series of interviews that Joseph Oppenheimer conducted with the families of people killed during the purges. Having been told the names of the people responsible for killing the survivors’ families, Oppenheimer decided to chance his arm and request an interview. Fully expecting his requests to be turned down, Oppenheimer discovered that the murderers were only too happy to reveal the extent of their involvement and to brag about the number of number of women they raped and the number of people they killed with their own bare hands. The conceit behind The Act of Killing is that Oppenheimer and his co-directors gave these murderers the chance to make a film about their career as executioners but while these sequences do generate some genuinely arresting and surreal visuals (including lavish dance numbers and dream sequences), the true meat of the film lies in its exploration of how these men justify their actions and how elements in Indonesian public life ensure that they continue to be seen as heroes.
The film opens with one of its most arresting scenes: Two men walk into a poor neighbourhood surrounded by uniformed bodyguards. The locals eye them cautiously as the larger of the two explains that he is looking for an attractive woman to play a mother. Suddenly (and with no real preamble) the man bellows to his bodyguards that they are to burn a woman’s house down and the people begin screaming and shouting. By refusing to provide us with any context for these actions, Oppenheimer invites us to assume the very worst about what it is that we are seeing, that a death squad has just wandered into a poor part of town and decided to grab a woman and burn her house to the ground as a way of telling everyone else to keep their mouths shut. When the screaming stops, the locals fall into uneasy smiles and polite applause… it was all an act, but it was an act that revealed an ugly truth: The guys in uniform are members of a paramilitary organisation and the two men in charge used to run death squads out of that very neighbourhood.
The man in charge of the recreation is Anwar Congo, a slight and surprisingly dapper gent who began life as a preman or Indonesian gangster. Back in the 1960s, Anwar made his money from ticket scalping and when his crew were told that the PKI were planning on banning American movies, he and his friends happily turned from ticket scalpers to executioners. In one chilling scene, Anwar talks about going to see an Elvis Presley movie only to dance out of the cinema and into his office where he would happily beat confessions out of people and murder anyone who happened to be declared guilty. The person who wrote down the confessions and declared people guilty was an ambitious reporter who continues to publish magazines and newspapers out of the exact same offices.
The links between the killers and the Indonesian establishment are also evident from the orange uniform worn by Congo’s sidekick Herman Coto. A large man with long flowing locks who inexplicably spends a large chunk of the film in drag before cutting his hair in order to stand as a pro-worker political candidate, Herman is a member of Pancasila Youth or Pemuda Pancasila, an anti-communist paramilitary organisation that currently boasts three million members and ties to high-ranking Indonesian politicians.
Anwar, Herman and a number of other people frequently remind us that the Indonesian word for gangster is derived from the Dutch word ‘vrijman’, which translates into English as ‘free man’. However, while this etymology might invite Westerners to picture Indonesian gangsters as anarchic figures who operate by their own set of laws, the historical reality is that ‘vrijman’ was a term used by Indonesia’s colonial overlords to designate thugs who, though not directly employed by the East India Company, were known to make themselves useful in return for money. Since colonial times, the various power blocks controlling Indonesia have used gangsters to impose their will on local communities. In fact, widespread use of premans during the purges reportedly made some gangs so rich and powerful that the army eventually felt obliged to step in and regulate the Indonesian underworld before the gangs came to rival the military. The result was the creation of a number of very large and very public paramilitary organisations that function in much the same way as traditional gangs but with a greater degree of visibility and perceived legitimacy. Interestingly, while the death of Suharto may not have ended the involvement of preman gangs in Indonesian public life, the new era in Indonesian politics has reportedly resulted in many premans abandoning the militaristic uniforms and nationalistic creed of Pancasila Youth in favour of political programmes more closely allied with ethnic and religious interests.
The reason that Anwar and Herman are free to swagger around bragging about their pasts is that Indonesian political culture has invested heavily in the legitimacy of institutions that treat their anti-communist past as a particular point of pride. This attempt to eradicate self-doubt is made abundantly clear in a frankly jaw-dropping sequence in which Anwar is interviewed by a TV presenter in front of an audience filled with uniformed members of Pancasila Youth. Not only does the presenter refrain from asking Anwar any awkward questions, she actually goes out of her way to present Anwar as a hero and when someone does raise the question of what might happen were the communists to get their act together and seek revenge, an audience member breaks the awkward silence by yelling his willingness to resume the killings at a moment’s notice.
Much of the brilliance of The Act of Killing comes from the way that Oppenheimer presents the presence of Pancasila Youth in Indonesian public life as something of a double-edged sword: On the one hand, the power and influence of the organisation ensure that unthinking killers like Herman can dance through life without fear of ever being held to account. On the other hand, in order to stop public opinion from turning against the purges and against the gangs, organisations like Pancasila Youth are forced to invest a lot of time and energy in perpetuating the myth that the premans are patriots who saved the nation from the cruelties of communism. The reason why various killers and politicians keep reiterating the idea that premans are free men is that the etymological association has come to serve as a sort of mantra, a meaningless sentence that is endlessly repeated as a sign of the speaker’s commitment to a particular vision of the world. The words of the mantra are of no real consequence; all that matters is that something occupies the space where truth and doubt might otherwise grow: Don’t think, don’t ask questions, just remind the good people that you’re a free man and that you saved the country from the communists.
The further the re-enactments progress, the more evident it becomes that Anwar is having to expend energy keeping his doubts and feelings of guilt at bay. Initially, Anwar presents himself as a shameless and dapper little man who talks about his murderous past with a completely clean conscience and a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days. However, it is not long before Anwar mentions the fact that he has bad dreams and unwanted feelings. In one scene where an actor breaks down and talks about how the purges forced his family to the margins of society and made it impossible for him to have an education, Anwar’s face goes completely blank. From there we move to recreations of horrible nightmares and the decision to re-enact torture scenes with Anwar as the victim but while he may bluster about how humane his methods of killing were and how having a metal noose fitted round his head didn’t really bother him that much, it is clear that Anwar is beginning to fray around the edges. Towards the end of the film, Anwar drags his grandchildren in front of the completed film in order to show them what a hero their grandfather used to be but the scene he decides to show them is the one in which he is killed and the expression on his face is absolutely impossible to read.
The most striking thing about the slow unpacking of Anwar’s conscience is the sense of quite how much emotional energy he has invested in keeping his demons at bay. When surrounded by his gangster friends, Anwar is comfortable and upbeat but the second he is separated from their simplistic moral universe, the cracks begin to form. Many of the scenes towards the end of The Act of Killing are reminiscent of scenes in The Sorrow and The Pity as both films show people struggling to maintain their commitment to a myth they know to be false. The differences between The Act of Killing and The Sorrow and The Pity are derived from the fact that France and Indonesia adopted very different solutions to the question of how to move forward from mass murder. The French invested in lies and pulled a curtain over their collective past but the Indonesians shoved their past onto centre stage and declared it a star, but this is no less of a coping mechanism. As Oppenheimer put it in an interview:
You celebrate mass killing so you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer. You keep your victims oppressed so that they don’t challenge your story. When you put the justification – the celebration – under a microscope, you don’t necessarily see a lack of remorse, but you start to see an unravelling of the killers’ conscience. So what appears to be the symptom of a lack of remorse is in fact the opposite. It’s a sign of their humanity.
One of the more interesting takes on the film comes from the Indonesian academic Soe Tjen Marching who sets out to analyse the film in terms of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil and reaches some interesting conclusions. Taken from Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the term ‘banality of evil’ has come to mean that people tend to perform inhuman actions for depressingly human reasons such as the desire for advancement or the need to be accepted by their peers. However, one of the central components of Arendt’s concept is that people such as Eichmann pointedly refused to ask themselves questions and relied upon cliché as a means of justifying their actions. One of my major concerns with The Act of Killing is that it ends on far too upbeat a message: The boastful murderer lets down his guard and his humanity reveals itself. But is it really that simple? Are murderous rapists nothing more than good-hearted people who do terrible things and wind up torturing themselves with quiet guilt? Oppenheimer clearly wants us to believe this but I think the reality is a touch more complex. As Soe Tjen Marching puts it:
Anwar shows remorse as he becomes aware of Oppenheimer’s true intentions. Was Anwar previously really unaware? Or has Anwar’s awareness of Oppenheimer’s political stance somehow led him to demonstrate his awareness and his remorse concerning the crimes that he has committed? After all, we represent ourselves differently vis-a-vis different people
Anwar is someone who grew-up wanting to be in movies. All throughout the film we are told about how he would take inspiration from 1960s gangster films and then go to work and try to be even more sadistic than the characters in the films. Is it not possible that this desire to be in movies also manifested itself in a desire to provide himself with a flattering character arc? The important concept here is that of cliché, Arendt observed that:
When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.
This poses the question of where the clichés and stock phrases come from. In Eichmann’s case those stock phrases would have come from ideas of good administrative practice but Anwar’s clichés and stock phrases come from films and the political culture shaped by organisations such as Pancasila Youth; When surrounded by braggarts, Anwar brags. When surrounded by filmmakers, Anwar behaves like a character from a film. Oppenheimer presents Anwar’s adoption of certain lines of argument as a defensive measure and a coping mechanism but this assumes that Anwar has a real moral compass buried somewhere beneath the hair die and the patriotic slogans. How sure are we that humans have their own private moralities? How sure are we that humans carry within them a set of moral codes that are independent of the moral codes that surround them? Do we genuinely believe that most people wouldn’t happily join in the killing if their friends were doing it too? Films like The Sorrow and The Pity, Taxi to the Dark Side and The Act of Killing remind us that belief in humanity’s fundamental goodness might very well be the kind of cliché that killers deploy to justify their own actions.