The Final Scene of The Act of Killing: Did the Filmmaker Go Far Enough in Confronting Congo?
The film’s central character is Anwar Congo. In 1965, he had been the leader of a death squad in Medan, an Indonesian city of some 4 million people. Tall, thin, cadaverous, hidden behind dark glasses with an assortment of wide-lapelled suits—lime green, canary yellow. Congo seems as if on display, flamboyant to no particular purpose. He tells Oppenheimer about his love of the movies, particularly the Hollywood epics of the 1950s. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Movies were part of the deal from the beginning.
And the people still fear them. Chinese shop keepers and market vendors who are old enough to have been around when their people were indiscriminately included in the purge are forced to smile wide while handing protection money over to Safit Pardede, arguably the vilest of the gangsters in the film. (Later on, while taking a break from filming a reenactment of a village massacre, he reminisces wistfully with his buddies about raping fourteen year-old girls. "I'd say, 'It's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me!'") Such moments made me wonder whether I was watching yet another reenactment, since it seems pretty crazy for a thug to openly admit crimes on camera. It appears that longstanding corruption has solidified into a core Indonesian principle, like democracy or capitalism. We see politicians make speeches proudly declaring that they are gangsters, careful to remind the crowd that the term "gangster" in their society only means "free man." A leading newspaper publisher brags about how he manufactured evidence against suspected Communists, providing long lists for the death squads. This is the smiliest atrocity documentary I've ever seen. Between camera setups on the historical film, Congo's neighbor Suryono shares a story about watching the death squads abduct his communist stepfather. Quick to reassure the gangsters that "I'm not criticizing what we're doing," he describes finding his stepfather's body under an oil barrel the next day. At 12 years of age, he had to help bury his stepdad in a roadside ditch. Moments after this recollection, Oppenheimer keeps the documentary camera focused on Suryono, whose cavalier facade is crumbling by the second. He seems to implode as Congo's friend Adi Zulkadry, a flinty veteran executioner who reminds me of Ray Winstone, browbeats the others about sugarcoating their crimes: "Everything Anwar and I have always said is false. It's not the communists who were cruel. I'm absolutely aware that we were cruel."
In a word, the enduring trauma of survivors and communities, the lack of justice for so many dead, and the ongoing impunity for those who carried out this violence are held up as a mirror to the participants of these films and to us. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence (also reviewed in this journal) are not stories of redemption, or reconciliation, or hope. Because the history of 1965 in Indonesia, so far, promises us none of these things.