Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 87, No 2

THE ACT OF KILLING. By Joshua Oppenheimer; director, Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directors, Christine Cynn and Anonymous; producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen; executive producers, André Singer, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris. Copenhagen: Final Cut for Real ApS, 2012. 1 DVD (159 min.) In Indonesian with English subtitles.

Anwar Congo is confused. He is proud of having executed accused communists back in 1965-66. As a low-level mafioso in the city of Medan, he enjoys his reputation as a tough man of violence. When a filmmaker from 
the United States enters his life, he jumps at the chance to put his past exploits on film so that the whole world will recognize him as a hero. Even those he killed will honour him from their graves: the final scene in the film he scripts is set by a waterfall with women dancing like celestial fairies on the rocks as his victims place gold medals around his neck, thanking him for releasing them from a life of iniquity.

Amid his grotesque exercises in self-aggrandizement, doubts continue to plague him. Was it really right to bludgeon and strangle defenseless captives? As he re-enacts the scenes of the killing in a variety of Hollywood genres, he imagines himself as one of his victims facing death. We see him recoil from the experience and plead for a break in the filming. The film that 
was meant to glorify his heroism turns into a display of his inner torments. The climax of the film (to the extent that this genre-bending documentary has a climax) comes when he returns to the site of the killing, a rooftop terrace, and admits, while stricken with nausea, that it was wrong (salah). Crestfallen, shoulders hunched, he recognizes his failure, after all the work in filming with Oppenheimer, to place the garroting of tied-up detainees in a heroic narrative.

The complex subjectivity of Anwar Congo makes this a compelling documentary. We first see him living with gleeful amorality: he orders his minions (anak buah) to collect protection money from storeowners, 
obsesses about his dandyish clothes, does the cha-cha after describing his methods of execution, and expounds on being a “freeman” (preman) outside the law. Yet even this contemptible creature comes close to acquiring something like an examined life and a vague, inchoate sense of ethics. His anak buah appear more vulgar and his preman peers appear more cynical. I was disturbed when I realized that I had begun to empathize with him.

Choosing to focus on Anwar Congo was just one of the brilliant decisions of the director, Joshua Oppenheimer. Another was the decision to have Anwar and his associates—all film buffs—create their own film and re-enact the scenes of killing. These perpetrators of atrocities are not narrating their stories as talking heads; they are putting their inner fantasy world on display. Those viewers who find this method obscene, who see it as giving the perpetrators the chance to play dress-up and have some fun, miss the point: it is precisely the re-enactments that provoke them into candid reflections about what they did. By indulging them, Oppenheimer challenges them. They discover their self-presentation resembles the images of the sadistic communists in state propaganda. “We were more vicious than the communists,” concludes Congo’s friend Adi.

Such admissions are explosive amid the longstanding silence of the Indonesian state about the killings of 1965–66. Even the perpetrators have not had a public hearing of their stories. The killings were largely done in secret and they have been kept mysterious ever since. The incessant anti-communist propaganda only works if the morally indefensible executions of political prisoners is left unrepresented. The Suharto regime (1966–98) glorified the violence in the abstract as “the crushing of the Communist Party of Indonesia.” This film undoes so much of that propaganda simply by having the heroes of that violence talk about what they did and what they have been doing since. It is revealing that the military today has been suppressing showings of the film, even though it only presents the story from the perspective of the anti-communists.

This sophisticated film comes into a world that knows next to nothing about the slaughter. A single film cannot redress this pervasive ignorance. As a “documentary of the imagination” (Oppenheimer’s term in the press notes), the film does not present an analysis of the patterns of the killings in Medan. The army played a crucial role in organizing them but its role, while acknowledged, is largely unexamined. The experiences of the victims and witnesses are not explored in any depth. These are inevitable limitations, not faults, of a film centred on the civilian perpetrators.

The viewer should not freely extrapolate from the particulars of Medan. Not all perpetrators in Indonesia are so eager to speak in public about the killings, especially in this post-Suharto era, and not all are so boastful when they do. The thuggish organization to which Congo belongs, Pemuda Pancasila (PP), did not play a prominent role in the killings in other areas of the country and is not very powerful today outside of North Sumatra. I suspect the figure of three million members that the film provides is an exaggeration. The PP’s ongoing power in Medan has created a little ethics-free zone for Anwar Congo and his gang; they allow themselves to be filmed extorting money and talking about plans for more lucrative extortion schemes, oblivious to the idea that most viewers (including viewers in Indonesia) would find this reprehensible. Their brazenness is extreme, but it does accurately reflect the kind of power that preman wield in many parts of the country.

Seven patient years in the making, The Act of Killing is a profound study of the subjectivity of executioners who have enjoyed total impunity.

The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada              John Roosa


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