The Act of Killing – movie review

When I first heard about the Act of Killing last year, I couldn’t wait to watch this documentary. Being fascinated by the history of Indonesia, I found it very hard not to read anything I could find on the movie: I have this old habit of coming to a movie without preconceived ideas.

Joshua Oppenheimer shot the movie over a 10 year period with the help of many anonymous Indonesians, who are referred to as “Anonymous” when the credits roll. That itself is a very powerful reminder of Indonesia’s continuous repression. And this movie is a lot about continuity. While Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed killers from the 1965 massacres that took the lives of an estimated 1 million people, those killers and this era are still being glorified by today’s powers that be. The death squads responsible for most of the killings originated from the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organisation founded in 1965 and still pretty active in Indonesia, with over 3 millions members countrywide.

The current Indonesian government is in direct continuity with the regime of impunity that prevailed since the 1965 coup led by General Suharto. Originally, Joshua Oppenheimer wanted to make a movie about the survivors of the massacres. Everytime he shot a scene the police would intervene, and most survivors were too afraid to speak up. To this day, union leaders and families of survivors still live in a situation of political apartheid.

That’s when someone suggested Joshua Oppenheimer should interview the perpetrators instead, which would bring the massacres to a most revealing and disturbing light. In this political culture of impunity and glorification of “communist” murders, this was the only way anyone would accept to speak to him. It turned out that the killers were most eager to boast of their “achievements”, and each of them proudly accepted to appear in the movie and reenact the killings.

As the movie begins, this might help one understand how death squad leader Anwar Congo can boast so gleefully over his own killings, showing the many ways he used to most effectively torture and take lives.

To this day, these people remain heroes, feared and respected by most, with local and political ties not unlike 1965. The people who were in power then are still where they used to be. While the massacres stopped, the same groups of people occupy power. The Pancasila Youth is still used politically and participates in this culture of fear, for instance to intimidate farmers into selling their land to make room for million-dollar real estate projects. Following the movie, a newspaper editor was beaten up by members of the Pancasila Youth and forced to apologize for his review of the Act of Killing. Continuity and impunity are the key to understanding Indonesia’s present situation.

As Anwar Congo and fellow death squad members go on to reenact their killings, one is struck by the inverted reality that rules Indonesia. The killers are hailed as heroes, and the victims dare not speak up. As one of the killers cynically states during the movie, when asked how he feels about having committed war crimes according to the Geneva Convention, he replies that “war crimes are defined by the winners”:

One of the most eerie scenes, taking place midway through the movie, features Anwar’s appearance on national TV, during a show called “Indonesian National Television special dialogue”. The killings are glorified, the anchor stands in awe in front of Anwar and his friends and all their “achievements”. To this day, it’s still politically accepted that this war was just, and that “communists” had to be annihilated. A buzzword that comes up very often, either in the mouth of death squad leaders or political figures, is that “the word gangster means free man”.

While at the beginning of the movie, Anwar Congo and others seem totally devoid of emotion and regret for what they’ve done (Congo is credited for having killed at least a thousand people himself), as the movie progresses doubt creeps into his mind. Near the end of the movie, an interrogation room is recreated, and the death squad members have to switch roles with the victims, Congo seems shook and suddenly looks very old, as if all the past at once acquired its real meaning.

Another paradox highlighted by The Act of Killing is that it’s only by “acting the murders” that the killings seem to become real to the death squad leaders. Since Joshua Oppenheimer directed them as little as possible, basically letting them use whatever props they needed to recreate the crime scenes, many are downright burlesque or absurd. One of the biggest scenes is the burning of a village, which features many people. While it’s only a reenactment, the scene exudes a disturbing violence: many children cry, some women don’t feel well and have to be carried out of the set. As if the past was too close behind, too much pain buried in a shallow grave that anything could bring back to light.

Perhaps that’s The Act of Killing’s greatest achievement, to bring this painful reality to light so it may be processed and reconciliation may begin. While Anwar Congo’s parting words, “Have I sinned?”, could only be a temporary crack in his wall, for many others the path to acknowledgement and reconciliation might just have begun. And it’s by no means limited to Indonesia. The mid-sixties were a period of cold war politics, and the Indonesian state received a lot of support from its US ally, weapons that were used during these killings and the war in East Timor: unsurprisingly, the island was also accused of being communist before it was invaded in 1975.

And today, the rhetorics have changed but the situation remains the same. As important as honoring those who died in the 1965 massacres and bringing the perpetrators to justice, it’s the continuity in politics that has to be exposed. In the past 40 years, West Papua has been suffering a similar fate. Other death squads have been formed, with a more Western like efficiency: Detachment 88 being the most infamous. It received training, supplies and extensive support from the United States and the Australian Federal Police.

Where the enemies of the state were once called communists, they are now labelled terrorists. Torture is still widely used, deportation and targeted assassination replaced mass murder. Again, the responsibility is collective, as the Indonesian state receives a lot of support in its current war. West Papua is a vast and rich land, many gold mines are now scarring its pristine forests, while its inhabitants are expelled. The West benefits greatly from its abundant natural resources. The Act of Killing is not a movie about past events, but about a culture of impunity that continues to this day, with the blessing of the Western world.