Why Does the Filmmaker of "The Act of Killing" Use Re-Enactments to Tell This Story?
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing documents the efforts of a group of small-time gangsters in Indonesia to re-enact, through cinematic genres, their roles as executioners in the 1965-66 government-sponsored killings of so-called Communists. These gangsters boast about their involvement in the murders and seize the opportunity to re-create their violent pasts in all their graphic and (in their words) “sadistic” detail. For this reason, we could conceive of The Act of Killing as two films: Arsan and Amina, the gangsters’ film, and Oppenheimer’s documentary that interviews participants and captures events behind the scenes. The filmmakers of each – the gangsters on the one hand, Oppenheimer and his colleagues on the other – have different ambitions for their films and different stories that they want to tell.
The Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 is perhaps the least-studied and talked-about political genocide of the 20th century. The killings began after a failed left-wing coup in 1965, when members of the so-called 30 September Movement assassinated six Indonesian army generals and announced that they had taken President Sukarno "under their protection." The army quickly suppressed the coup and launched a killing spree of alleged communists, whom they blamed for the coup. Indonesia did indeed have a very large communist party, the PKI, but hundreds of thousands of others, including critics of the military and members of the ethnic Chinese minority, were also killed. (It is also not certain that the communists were responsible.) The army outsourced the work to local gangs and militias, including the massive and still-active Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization, and within a year, at least 500,000 people (with some estimates placing the number up to 3 million) had been murdered and more than 1 million more were imprisoned. The aborted coup also led to the overthrow of the left-leaning President Sukarno, the nation's first president and a leader of the anti-Dutch independence movement in the 1920's and 1930's, who was replaced by military leader General Suharto. By 1967, Suharto and his right-wing New Order administration were officially ruling Indonesia. Although Suharto resigned in 1998 and died a decade later, this same regime—the one that ordered the killings now almost 50 years ago—remains in control of Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation on the planet. Moreover, international institutions, like the International Criminal Court (ICC), have ignored these cases and influential foreign nations, like the United States, have, at best, also ignored the killings or, at worst, been complicit and supportive of the right-wing government. Therefore, the now-elderly executioners are treated like celebrities in the country. In one surreal scene, an executioner describes his favored method of killing on what looks to be the Indonesian version of Live! with Kelly and Michael, to cheers and laughs from the audience. This was the atmosphere that Oppenheimer stepped into in the mid-2000s when he started making The Act of Killing. As he said on The Daily Show, and to other media outlets, it was like going to Germany 40 years after World War II and seeing the Nazis still in charge.
To summarize, perhaps distribution of this film should be limited to the numbed and fearful Indonesia people, among whom – and I take the director’s word on this – the portrayal of Congo’s movie fantasies, and now Congo’s discomfort and guilt are sparking renewed interest in examining the last 48 years of Indonesian history. The director suggests that Congo’s cheesy re-enactments will help reduce fear of the right wing state, which has ruled with violence and intimidation all those years. I hope it does. But I would suggest that the possibility of empowerment has been eclipsed. This would have required input, real collaboration between the perpetrators and victims.