Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer – Denmark/Norway/UK) 115 minutes

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has made ripples in the West not so much because it’s a good film (though there is much about it that is very good) but because the impunity it portrays in such glaringly uncomfortable detail is so alien to the average Westerner’s post-Nuremberg sense of justice and faith that barbaric acts will ultimately be punished. The gangsters and militia men that Oppenheimer meets and films speak openly and unrepentantly of their part in the mass killing of over one million people accused of being communists in the wake of the failed military coup in 1965. Such candour is unusual among mass murderers but with the killers being friends, and in some cases, sponsors, of those in power in Indonesia, there is little danger of them ever appearing in the dock.

The reality is the impunity these mass murderers enjoy has been the norm throughout history, including much of the 20th century. While there has been a move in the past sixty years towards establishing a genuinely retributive infrastructure to judge crimes against humanity, it has been only partial and highly selective. The crimes of Stalin and Mao went unpunished as did the barbaric crimes of imperialism and the slave trades, both trans-Atlantic and African. Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and Tony Blair will never stand trial for their part in the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands in the West’s strategic wars and subversion of foreign governments. Even many Nazis escaped punishment, often with the connivance of the Allied powers. There is no appetite to bring Indonesia’s mass murderers to justice, not least because they still hold the country in terror (the Pemuda Pancasila militia is not as strong as it used to be but still boasts of three million members), but also because nobody with any influence cares. The US gave its blessing to the 1965-66 murders and Indonesia, as the world’s most populous Muslim country and a vital ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism, is too important to the West to risk upsetting (the West also let the Suharto regime invade East Timor and kill a third of its population between 1975 and 1999).

Oppenheimer’s stated original intention was to do a more conventional documentary on the massacres but he found few left-wing critics willing to speak. Many of the Indonesian crew members on the film are credited anonymously, such is the level of fear that still exists in the country. He did however find the killers more forthcoming about their role in the massacres and he had the idea of getting them to re-enact the killings. He starts off with Anwar Congo, a petty gangster who sold black-market movie tickets, and who had a particular animus for the Communists as the more lucrative American films were regularly proscribed by the Sukarno regime which overthrown by the coup. Congo is calm and coldly efficient – he devised a way of strangling his victims with wire to minimise the blood spilt, and points out that, unlike in the re-enactment, he would never have worn white trousers while on the job. Congo’s sidekick Herman Koto is also filmed going around the markets extorting money from ethnic Chinese businessmen, one of a number of ethically dubious choices on Oppenheimer’s part.

Oppenheimer briefly shows us interviews with high-ranking government officials, including former vice-president Yusuf Kalla, who is shown addressing a Pemuda Pancasila rally. We also meet newspaper editor Ibrahim Synik, who openly admits to portraying leftists in a bad light so as to turn the population against them, fostering a popular hostility that remains to this day. Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the half-Dutch leader of Pemuda Pancasila, shows himself to be a misogynistic buffoon, but terrifying when, live on television, he vows to massacre any leftists who might try to propose an alternative history of 1965 and 1966.

By far the most intelligent, and dangerous, of the interviewees is Adi Zulkadry, who, along with Congo, killed over 1000 people. He acknowledges that the tide could turn, as more and more children of the slaughtered begin to speak out about it. He also says he would do the same in their position. He does, however, get to the heart of the relativism that underscores the impunity in Indonesian public life. Like Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (Morris signed on as executive producer after seeing the film in post-production), Zulkadry knows that had things gone the other way, he could have been tried as a criminal. Zulkadry  however says he doesn’t care much for the Geneva Conventions, which he says ‘could be replaced tomorrow by the Jakarta Conventions’. It’s the most clear-eyed and chilling political statement in the film, and runs counter to the teleological liberal endgame theory that is the prevailing idea in the West. In a way, Zulkadry’s words crystallise the dynamic that has made The Act of Killing such an arresting experience for Western audiences. Yusuf Kalla’s words extolling the gangsters (who are known as ‘free men’ in Indonesian) also underline why they are prized by the authorities. He says not everyone can live within the law, ‘otherwise we would have a nation of bureaucrats’. Pemuda Pancasila is a vital outlet for the Indonesian state, an outsourcing of repression that lets the government off the hook and allows the population to imagine they are breathing the air of a free and vibrant democracy.

The film certainly is an unforgettable experience, documenting atrocities that have been largely forgotten outside of Indonesia, but Oppenheimer’s methodology often grates, and is morally questionable too. The idea of re-enactment seemed appealing on the face of it, especially given how many of the killers have re-cast themselves as world-historical stars. The first attempt at a re-enactment runs aground when residents of a formerly communist neighbourhood decline to take part, being terrified of being portrayed on film as communists. The fictional reconstructions provide some visual ballast in the absence of counter-testimonies but they over-indulge the killers and go far beyond what is necessary in constructing the anatomy of political psychosis. When Oppenheimer shoots Congo and Koto in a cross-dressing pastiche of a generic karaoke video, shot by a tropical waterfall, the film has trespassed into the realm of the irredeemably crass. Oppenheimer, despite leaving many names in the credits anonymous, also puts people at risk in a most irresponsible way, particularly the gantry staff who comment on Congo and Koto’s TV appearance. The afore-mentioned extortion of market stall holders also leaves a very unpleasant taste. Oppenheimer no doubt thinks he is coldly ‘exposing’ the crimes in this way, but given the impunity that forms the core of his thesis renders this exposure pointless, this only testifies to the authorial vanity so common among filmmakers.

The re-enactments are ultimately gimmicky; Rithy Panh, who lost his entire family to the Khmer Rouge, never needed anything of the sort for his documentaries on the Killing Fields, such as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine or Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell. Panh’s films are far less showy but more revelatory than The Act of Killing. Only occasionally does Oppenheimer come close to Panh’s candid sobriety. When he lays one of Adi Zulkadry’s monologues over images of him and his family shopping in a Jakarta mall, the truth about what he has done shines through far more evocatively than in Oppenheimer’s macabre and kitsch grand guignol.

Originally published by Berfrois.