Review: The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, and Christine Cynn
From the first scene – a bizarre musical number involving dancers emerging from the mouth of a giant fish – to the last, an old man being physically sick at the memory of his actions (whether genuinely or not, is unclear), The Act of Killing is a riveting, at times, unbelievable piece of documentary film making.
In 1965, the height of the Cold War, a section of the Indonesian military staged an unsuccessful coup. The coup was quickly blamed on the influence of the then powerful Indonesian communist party. A massive campaign of killing targeted anyone suspected of being a communist, including trade unionists, farmers, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese – and anyone unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of a score that needed settling.
Up to a million people were murdered. The main assailants were paramilitary death squads. The killing was out of control and chillingly low-tech. As the film states at the beginning, the men responsible ‘have been in power and have persecuted their opponents ever since’.
US director Joshua Oppenheimer asked two of these men from Medan in North Sumatra, to recreate their actions on film. They do it with an enthusiasm that is sometimes hard to watch.
The level on which most critics have approached The Act of Killing is as an examination of how humans can kill each other in such large numbers and with so little remorse.
In this respect, the film is similar to in tone to works like Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s 2003 documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which told the story of the former school that became the Khmer Rouge’s best-known torture chamber, and featured interviews with guards, administrators and captives.
I worked as a journalist on and off in Cambodia in the nineties and lived there for a year in 2008. I have interviewed many survivors and some of the perpetrators of Cambodia’s genocide, and visited communities where the two live side-by-side. In 2008, I reported on the international tribunal set up to investigate the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.
In addition to Panh’s film, there are numerous books for Western readers by Khmer Rouge survivors. The international tribunal also heard an enormous amount of testimony by survivors and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
I don’t doubt for a second the power and importance of telling these first person stories, for the survivors and, more generally, as part of helping to heal such traumatic history.
But I also noticed how focusing purely on the individual survivors, the horror they endured and the process of translating this for Western eyes and ears – whether through journalism, books or legal systems like the tribunal – at times renders the Khmer Rouge genocide a one-dimensional ahistorical act.
Such was the level of Western curiosity about what happened under the Khmer Rouge that when I first visited Phnom Penh in the early nineties, boys far too young to have lived through the genocide would approach tourists and, for a couple of dollars, offer to tell us about their experiences under Pol Pot.
I’ve also seen how focusing on the survivors has engendered a sense of smugness on the part of some Westerners, a perception that events like the Khmer Rouge genocide could only occur ‘over there’ in the developing world.
The reality is that Canberra supported the US, Great Britain and our then anti-Soviet allies in Asia, and backed the Khmer Rouge long after details of their murderous reign became public. Western governments, Australian included, were also fully aware of the scale of the killing that took place in Indonesia in 1965.
The Cambodian government has been an enthusiastic supporter of prosecuting the top architects of the Khmer Rouge genocide. But as many local commentators have pointed out, the government also presides over a corrupt administration, guilty of systematic human rights abuses. This includes the largest displacement of people since the Khmer Rouge period, with some 4,000 families violently moved to make way a major redevelopment of the northern part of the capital.
What is most illuminating and unsettling about The Act of Killing is its examination of the links between state-sponsored violence and criminality. With the help of his interview subjects, Oppenheimer dissects the political economy underpinning how the powerful commit crime in one part of Indonesia, much of which could no doubt be applied elsewhere in Indonesia and the region. It is something I have never seen done with such devastating clarity.
The film focuses on two men, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry. Anwar is the ‘star’ of the show – and I use the word deliberately. He’s a sprightly old man, who went from scalping black market movie tickets outside his local cinema in 1965 to leading Medan’s local anti-communist death squad.
We first meet Anwar with his sidekick, Herman Koto, trying to recruit local women to play the wives of communists in a recreation they want to stage of the burning of a communist village. Not surprisingly, no one will volunteer, so terrified are they that even agreeing to act like communists could see them tarred as subversives.
Anwar claims to have killed as many as thousand people. He’d leave the local cinema after watching an Elvis movie or a Hollywood Western and go to the ‘office of blood’, as he called the building in which the interrogation of communists took place. He even invented a way of strangling victims at a distance using a length of wire so he wouldn’t get their blood and viscera on his clothes.
Anwar is a contradictory character. One moment he is crystal clear his actions were necessary to fight communism. The next he harbours doubts about the morality of what he did and talks about how he uses drugs and alcohol to keep the nightmares at bay.
Adi also admits to his fair share of killings but is at total peace with the past. He doesn’t understand his friend’s constant hand-wringing, and is completely uncomprehending when Anwar goes so far as to suggest that maybe the children of murdered communists are justified in being angry.
As if their willingness to take part in the film is not strange enough, Anwar and Adi re-enacted many of the scenes in the genre of their favourite Hollywood films: hence the musical number at the film’s beginning. In another scene, re-enacting the interrogation of a Chinese man (whose father was actually a victim of the massacres), they dress like gangsters out of a 1940s film noir. It heightens the already horrific and surreal nature of what is being captured on screen.
Even more bizarre, they sit around and critique rough cuts of the scenes for the documentary, acting like a couple of film school auteurs. Perhaps it’s a result of his days scalping tickets, but Anwar is particularly keen to make sure the film is authentic and that it commits his legacy to the screen in the way he wants.
The Hollywood connection is not just evident in their on-screen enactments. In real life, Anwar and his goons resemble the New York Italian gangsters in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Goodfellas. They bluster around Medan, dressed in garish clothes, and constantly badmouth and backstab each other. Their brazenness and petty gangsterism might be amusing were it not for their political connections.
And this is where The Act of Killing comes into its own as a dissection of the political economy of criminality. Anwar visits the Governor of North Sumatra, and the two men discuss the old man’s reputation as a killer and their fears about how the children of the communists that were murdered in 1965 are starting to speak out ‘trying to reverse history’.
He is feted by the leaders of Pemuda Pancasila, a right wing paramilitary organisation descended from the death squads, whose youth wing alone today boasts three million members. At one point, the Vice President of Indonesia turns up to laud the work of Pemuda Pancasila. ‘We need gangsters to get things done,’ he tells a massive rally of the organisation’s supporters. Music to the ears of every factory owner whose ever had to deal with a strike, every developer wanting to clear villagers off their land to make way for a gold course or a shopping centre.
Next, Anwar discusses the mechanics of corruption and power with a local parliamentarian. The parliamentarian boasts about the smorgasbord of criminal activity Pemuda Pancasila is involved in, from illegal logging to protection rackets. Powerful people with problems don’t go to the police. Only the poor do that. The powerful use thugs connected to Anwar and Pemuda Pancasila.
To emphasis the point, after hearing Anwar talk about how he went house to house in 1965 murdering Chinese suspected of communist sympathies, we cut to his people shaking down Chinese stallholders in the local market.
Anwar’s men are totally brazen in their task. The stallholders look resigned or smile for the camera but cannot hide their intense fear at what is happening. We, the viewers, are the only ones that seem shocked.
The Act of Killing featured as part of the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival.