Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Act of Killing

A more efficient way to kill Communists
It is ambitious to try to get unconvicted mass murderers to talk on camera about killing people. Who would incriminate themselves like that?

Actually it seems that in Indonesia it is not too difficult. Early on in the documentary The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo admits that he killed lots of "communists" in 1965/6, other people interviewed either admit to their part in the massacre, or if younger they openly admire the killers.

The killings of 1965/6 were carried out on the initiative of the Indonesian Army and General Suharto who would then run the country until 1998. In their narrative the killings were necessary to 'save' Indonesia and hence the killers are heroes rather than criminals. Since 1998, the army, paramilitaries and many of the leaders from the Suharto period survive, along with that narrative. No-one has been put on trial.

Outside Indonesia the killings were initially seen as a 'good thing' by Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1966 when he told The New York Times "With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off...I think it's safe to assume a reorientation has taken place". But the West changed, it was no longer popular to view mass killing of people for their political views as a 'good thing' and the killings became lost in a guilt driven collective amnesia (a similar collective amnesia existed for decades about the 1918/9 Influenza Epidemic that killed far more people in one year than died in World War I).

In this environment Joshua Oppenheimer was faced with an unusual problem for a documentary film maker. It was easy to get his subjects to admit to the killings, in fact they almost gloated about it and certainly gloated about the power it brought them. The tricky bit was to get them to understand that what they did was wrong. While there are occasional attempts at self censorship, these usually occur after an enthusiastic outburst.

The Act of Killing is also a film about making a film. Before the killings Anwar and his pals in Medan were very minor gangsters scalping movie tickets because they were obsessed with American films. Joshua Oppenheimer encourages his subjects to re-enact their killings, in fact to help him make a film about themselves. Anwar Congo, his younger friend Herman Koto and members of the Pemuda Pancasila paramilitary group led by a cabinet minister enthusiastically join the project. Some of the scenes are dream sequences (both nightmares and happy musical / dance scenes) where Anwar and Herman play out the emotional consequences from their point of view (and we can see influences from film genres they've enjoyed). For reasons that are not explained Herman plays many of these scenes in drag.

A commonly repeated mantra in the Pemuda Pancasila is that the word "gangster" means "free man" in English. Where "free" implies free from the restraints of the law. And that Indonesia needs such "free men" to "get things done". It certainly seems that the culture of intimidation and corruption that came to power in 1965 is alive and well in modern Indonesia. It also means that Anwar et al are surrounded by people who steeped in knowledge that the killers of 1965 are heroes, a ready made support network.

The Act of Killing is a Jacksonishly long (159 minutes), somewhat repetitive and jumps back and forth (possibly over several years of filming). But eventually we reach the point moment that Oppenheimer was waiting for.

In my view The Act of Killing reinforces the ideas that a) normal (or close to normal) people are completely capable of evil and b) if you have a support network telling you what you did was justified then you probably will not recognise what you did was wrong.

Ian's rating 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I was blown away by this movie - we saw the longer 2:45 mins Director's Cut. There's an interesting interview with the director here
    (Skip to 30 mins). AK