The death squad captain swaggers out of his local bar still humming ‘My Way’, while his victims rot in the river and the cleaning ladies toil through the night mopping up the blood. Subtract the victims and the stench, the toil and the blood from the scenario: the killing and the killer remain. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing recasts the Indonesian mass killings of the mid 1960’s as a personal narrative told in lush dramatic reenactments conceived and directed, ostensibly, by the perpetrators. It’s a film that quotes Bollywood gleefully. It also may seem to owe much to Bataille, Genet, and Pasolini, although all of them were responding in a historically and philosophically engaged way to WW2, totalitarianism, surrealism and the intellectual foment of their times. Oppenheimer’s moral compass remains spinning indefatigably off screen, not because we are watching a killer not brought to justice, but because we are being shown killers as a variety of moral freaks who populate an ahistorical world where violence is the product of an entertainment industry which dominates the human imagination. The context is not Indonesia the Vietnam/Cold War era, it is the world of big screen gangsters and exploitative entertainment violence that anyone in the movie marketing business knows is the stock and trade of the “international” market. The filmmaker claims his work was conceived in the shadow of Abu Ghraib, and informed by the acts of sadism very much in the public eye at the time, the reality show genre coming of age in a horrifyingly spectacular way.
This brings up questions of how we read history, for the shadow of Abu Ghraib is very long, and has much to say about 21st century American hegemony…or, you could just say it was the result of some perverted soldiers acting out scenarios from porn to which they were addicted. Let’s “humanize” the whole affair, show the soldiers’ guiltiness and their guilelessness.
The Act of Killing has been compared to The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, by Kazuo Hara, but that was a traditional documentary steeped in history and journalistic bravado, while this film is pushing the genre by using collaboration between filmmaker and subject as a central strategy, but creative roles are not entirely defined. It has some things in common Herzog’s 1995 made-for-television work about the alleged murderer/composer, Gesualdo, Death for Five Voices, also told in artful reenactments. The big difference is that in Death for Five Voices the artist’s hand was clearly Herzog’s. In The Act of Killing the action is not ironically set to liturgical chamber music, its world is the unsavory, contemptuous corruption of tropical despots and a cowed disempowered citizenry. Looking at the grim little towns, the generally modest quality of life of the protagonist/perpetrators, the crimes did not net them great riches, but they remain heroes to their parent organization, the Pancasilla Youth Movement, a paramilitary death squad at the time of the 1965 Indonesian coup that evolved into a citizens’ lobby supportive of Suharto. It became known by its current name in 1981, and presently retains about a half million members. It remains a thuggish group, and is reported to have beaten and/or threatened those who are associated with this film—journalists and the filmmakers themselves.
In a recent Q&A, Oppenheimer asserted this film was made “in collaboration with a community of survivors”, who have been deprived of the truth by a government still largely under the control of the perpetrators. We are left to puzzle out the seeming contradiction when he also makes the claim that the active agents in the creative work of the film are a couple of perpetrators: the telegenic Anwar Congo, who maintains a dapper “gangster” façade, his gap teeth and tiny neck so snap-able, his fragile lithe body of a Jiminy Cricket with all the cartoony charm; and his fat, ugly sidekick, also a perpetrator, and a cross dresser. “Relax and Rolex” was the motto of the Indonesian gangster community. Each shamelessly declare their methods of killing, with demonstrations. Anwar is even willing to play a victim in one scene, which ends up getting unexpectedly intense. (“I would call ‘cut’ if he was too deeply into it,” Oppenheimer said.)
One of the charms of the world of this film is how it demands that you let go of what you think is real and dips you head first into a delusional kaleidoscope of strangeness, banality, and psychotic pain, right into a literally gut-wrenching moment of truth, as the happy-go-lucky protagonist confronts the reality of the crimes he has committed and retches violently…a documentary filmmaker’s version of a wet dream come true.(He was not about to call cut at that moment.) Anwar Congo and his killer buddies seem to have devised exquisitely produced and lavishly funded sequences of oversaturated color, stunning natural beauty and freaky makeup jobs which teeter between fine art and amateurship.
Given the weirdness of doing mass murder Bollywood style, and drilling into the core of a truly twisted mind, potential for midnight movie audiences/cult movie status is high. Oppenheimer is framing this film as an altruistic work of social justice–which it belies with its reveling in sheer strangeness. Oppenheimer’s camera frames the ultimate outsider art, and then lets it roll beyond. One scene appears to be a real village going up in flames. A sobbing child is traumatized before our eyes—it was hard enough for the jaded Hollywood audience to see the scene as a “movie”–much less a five-year-old. With the bamboo hut remains still smoldering, a (former) murderer holds the child on his lap and tries clumsily to console him, praising him for his realistic performance and wiping away the boy’s tears. We are shown real moments of weariness from the chorus of female dancers after they are filmed in gauzy sumptuous long shots against a scenic waterfall—stunning imagery that maybe refers to Congo’s longing for expiation of his sins but is more likely a scene of his being greeted in paradise and rewarded for his acts of audacious sadism. The line between documentary and fiction is blurry: when we see a Chinese merchant being shaken down for protection money we aren’t sure we are watching verité or a reenactment. A television studio taping is supposed to be verité but seems to be staged for this documentary.
- The film teaches us that the literal translation of the Indonesian word for ‘gangster’ is ‘free man’, a fact that is repeated during speeches at the Pancasilla rallies that appear in the film. Congo, like many of his fellow criminals, was recruited by the army to kill. The killings have left him a haunted man, and have created a hollow and paranoid community of the guilty who are now living in a state of fragile impunity. The Indonesian leadership has quashed attempts at creating truth and reconciliation commissions. Political Islam has played a role in the cover up, since Muslims had an extensive role in the murders, albeit under coercion, gross manipulation and deception. The film presents contemporary Indonesia as a traumatized populace in the grip of a ruling class of the guilty and people whose lives depend on protecting them. The relatively large number of collaborators who have survived certainly provide a buffer for the status quo, since the last change they would want would be a government that wished to prosecute their crimes—however, their crimes leave them in a peculiarly vulnerable and tenuous position.
- “I am always gazed at by those eyes I did not close.” –Anwar Congo
The narrative arc of the charming sociopath Anwar Congo cries out for this film to be a moral tale of comeuppance, or at least a karmic reckoning. Anwar Congo is deeply aware of the horror he has visited on so many people, but finds it impossible to admit this to himself. Their eyes watch him, he says, because he did not close them. A killer talks about visiting a witch doctor who explained that his problems sleeping, and the persistence of haunting images, are the result of a nerve disorder. (This is common nomenclature for psychological problems in some Asian societies.) We watch the unfolding of a man’s memory, with its flourishes and its absurd grandiosity, showing off how bad he was, how he strangled, beheaded and burned. He keeps up the façade for a while. I was reminded of Genet’s descriptions of the stiff dignity of the petty criminals he met in prison, whose demeanor was all tough guy and insolence, masking a desolation wrought by multiple personal tragedies.
Congo’s impunity is ‘shocking, shocking’ to us here in the U.S. (where we put our killer George Zimmerman on trial before setting him free) but even more shocking to us is the openness of the perpetrators. Where we come from, this openness is unseemly. The identities of drone operators are at least hidden, like executioners. People are not allowed into slaughterhouses. Generals are not encouraged to brag about their war crimes. One of the main amusements of watching The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On were the tea rituals with which the protagonist was greeted by the war criminals he sought to “out”, that devolved into fist fights when he confronted their refusals to admit to the truth(in their case, cannibalism of lower ranking soldiers or the native New Guineans although they often proved too quick at escaping).In The Act of Killing we see not just one but many who speak boastfully of their murders, and only bridle at the notion that they were wrong in killing and ought to face justice. “History is written by the victors… isn’t that what your Winston Churchill said?” smirks one of the killers.
In 1965, the Indonesian government was led by Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, a formerly heroic national figure in winning independence from the Dutch (1949). He became increasingly anti-western as the Cold War era wore on and Western economic imperialism became the new mode of conquer. In the mid-60’s his leadership was definitely on the wane: attempts at land reform had created schisms and antagonism throughout the archipelago, the economy was in shambles and it was a time of great hardship for the Indonesian people. The PKI, a communist/leftist party, was pressing for a more socialist agenda; within the army, rivalries were heating up. Then all hell broke loose when an armed group calling itself the 30 September movement murdered six senior army generals and a lieutenant. The perpetrators were all disaffected military, whom later historians believe were elite PKI—though they did not represent the rank and file or those who simply agreed with the socialist principles of PKI, who later became victims. The Army Strategic Reserve, led by Suharto, seized upon this event to launch a propaganda campaign demonizing the PKI at all levels. Through concerted and comprehensive disinformation, the army was able to mobilize a number of militias and other citizens groups, by presenting versions of the coup story tailored to stoke fear and paranoia. For every group of citizens the army wished to employ in killing, the narrative was custom made to give them a legitimate reason, even need to kill—and often the reason was simple coercion. See an excellent review of the history of that time and the various literature on the killings.
According to an article in Wiki, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta handed over 5,000 names of presumed communist sympathizers to the Indonesian army during the massacres, and the full extent of American complicity is unknown. Estimates vary, but perhaps a million people were killed. Indonesian history is extremely complex and grows more so in recent years, with the rise of indigenism, environmental politics, and a return to tribalism and other forms of cultural traditionalism, and the ubiquitous presence of NGOs, which always raise the question of, “Do you know where your NGO gets its funding?”
However, the version of Indonesian history that links widespread terror and depravity to the political ambitions of the power elite is not the version you will see in The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer opens his film with a quote from Voltaire: “All murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” A great quote, but not for this film; Voltaire, the grandmaster of political analysis and historiography, is speaking of acts of war carried out by armies, generals, states and kingdoms, not foot soldiers, militiamen, or opportunistic sociopathic dupes. In a statement on the film’s website, Oppenheimer writes:
“Anwar and his friends had helped to build a regime that terrorized their victims into treating them as heroes, and I realized that the filmmaking process would answer many questions about the nature of such a regime – questions that may seem secondary to what they did, but in fact are inseparable from it. For instance, how do Anwar and his friends really think people see them? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? How do they see their victims? How does the way they think they will be seen by others reveal what they imagine about the world they live in, the culture they have built? The filmmaking method we used in The Act of Killing was developed to answer these questions. It is best seen as an investigative technique, refined to help us understand not only what we see, but also how we see, and how we imagine. These are questions of critical importance to understanding the imaginative procedures by which human beings persecute each other, and how we then go on to build (and live in) societies founded on systemic and enduring violence.” (Italics mine.)
Foundational to Oppenheimer’s stylistically bold film is this notion that it is the psychology of individuals—their “imaginative procedures”–that drives them to persecute, and that this is what shapes society. Every history is a story with a “moral” that resonates within the codes of its own worldview, and the historiographical implications of Oppenheimer’s work point away from the role of elites in driving the mass slaughter and towards the machinations of the individual pathology. In the case of Anwar, Hollywood movies fueled his imagination. He is an imitation of the gangsters he saw in action movies, as he tells it. The assumption that “our” propensity for consuming pop culture and desiring to imitate the violence so carefully rendered for our entertainment makes us a violent society is a big question that seems to shield us from looking at the real guns aimed at real people who have historically been on the wrong side of power at the wrong time. The casting of mass killings as an aberration of an individual’s imagination becomes a regressive, a historical position, and in this case ends up distorting the truth. The actual history of the events of 1965 and 1966, as in most genocides and mass killings throughout history, have much more to do with political factors than anyone’s imaginative propensities. Historians agree that a concerted propaganda campaign drove the killings. People were lied to and used to wipe out a manufactured opposition to a military that wanted power. They may have had a propensity to believe the lies and take up violence because of prejudice, fear, greed or ignorance, but to use Anwar Congo’s case as exemplary is downright misleading. Most of the militias had vested economic interests that would be served, were either tribal or Islamic–having fears stoked around their cultural and religious practices and identities being wiped out—or they were the victims of coercion to kill or be identified as the enemy.
The other curious part of Oppenheimer’s statement is “How do Anwar and his friends really think people see them?” This seems to be the operating dynamic in this film, for it is like an ode written by the (evil, brown) protagonists to themselves, put on display by a western filmmaker who knows better and is quite naturally morally superior. It’s true that there are some quarters within “first world” society where image is of primary concern: the entertainment industry, fashion, the ruling classes, certain corporations…where no expense is spared protecting and/or burnishing image. Go to poor ethnic neighborhoods and you won’t see this. For Oppenheimer to posit that culture is built upon people’s notion of how they think others will see them is revealing. For it also calls to mind the mistaken ways people think others see them, and here we have a hapless attempt at image building which makes for that piquant freak show aspect–certainly this is one of the main reasons why this film got the imprimatur of Errol Morris. The “reenactments” that Oppenheimer enables Anwar Congo to produce are really more Bollywood than Hollywood. In Bollywood films, Westerners see a kitsch paean to Western filmmaking. People in India find this entertainment to be genuine; we see it as a genuine imitation of what a dominant culture(‘we’) originated, never mind that the cultural references might all come out of Hindu mythology, Indian history, traditional dance, etc. As westerners, watching scenes in the Oppenheimer film where an obese, sweaty mass murderer dolls himself up (like “our” Divine), or dancing girls in plumed costumes strut in a stiffly choreographed line from the mouth of a giant fish, a subtly derisive amusement is evoked, a superior chuckle which a privileged audience experiences watching the product of a less sophisticated artist, an “outsider”, who just happens to be morally inferior (oh the horror, LOL), and he’s brown to boot. This is the very soul of the kitsch experience. (See John Steppling for a comprehensive discussion of kitsch.)
The overlay of our Western sensibilities sticks to the material like plastic wrap, and to unpack the material here it’s necessary to look past the film that Oppenheimer is asking us to see, to look through Anwar Congo’s seductive psychic fragility, to the larger forces that were at work. Despite the filmmaker’s comments, the great pathos that this film ultimately achieves is how the magnitude of Congo’s crimes, and the spell of the delusion that has kept him going, cracks open through the act of making art—however duped he was into making it, another cruel irony–and ultimately how that art-making brings Anwar Congo to a deeply physicalized moment of despair and remorse. You can’t really call it a moment of truth, because the hands pulling his strings will remain unknown, and he’s still in a Plato’s cave, where he will no doubt stay for a long-long time, right next to his director, his audience and his victims. He now lives in dread, “free”, not declared guilty, not in imminent physical danger, but his dead will keep looking at him with the eyes he did not close, in dream after dream. Whether or not he will see a day of judgment is truly not the issue, although it is a spell-binding story, and just like those spell-binding stories of fantastical Manicheanism spun out of Hollywood, so beloved to the protagonist, there’s nothing like a good bad guy.