The Act of Killing: Oscar nod lifts the lid on Indonesia’s dark past

A still from the film, The Act of Killing. ©2012 FINAL CUT FOR REAL APS, PIRAYA FILM AS AND NOVAYA ZEMLYA LTD

Academy Award nominations rarely enter into the domain of politics, and certainly have not delved into Indonesian politics in the past. This year, however, is different.

US-British director Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing has already won numerous international awards and has now been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

The film has received rave reviews from film critics, as well as one off-beat (and frankly misleading and illogical) paean from Slovenian Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek.

Confronting, controversial, The Act of Killing aims to explain the politics of the past in Indonesia. The documentary presents two connected aspects of Indonesia: the anti-communist killings of 1965-1969; and the role of gangsters in present-day politics.

Troubled times

In 1965, Indonesia was the front line of the Cold War, with the largest communist party outside of the USSR and China, pitted against an alliance of the army and anti-communist political parties and civil society groups, including Muslim organisations.

A “coup” – actually an attempted purge by leftists against rightist generals – on September 30, 1965, resulted in a series of actions by military officers in which one of them, Suharto, took power.

Suharto initially led a military counter-action against what became known as the 30th September Movement, the leftist military, by which the Communist Party of Indonesia was first made illegal, and then wiped out.

Finally Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, was forced to surrender power to Suharto, who went on to rule for another three decades. Internationally, Suharto was hailed as the “saviour” of his country, praise continued by Australian leaders such as Paul Keating.

A painting of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno (left) with his successor, Suharto (right). Billy Simpson

The abolition of the Communist Party of Indonesia was carried out through the mass murder of members, affiliates, and anyone accused of being linked to communism. Conservatively estimated at 500,000, and probably more like 1 million, the number of those slaughtered included many by-standers.

Meet the killers

The Act of Killing, which centres on the stories of several men hired to murder communists during the purge, is often called “surreal”, especially because of the weirdness of some of the scenes of cross-dressing and kitsch Hollywood-recreations.

Most surreal is Joshua Oppenheimer’s chief narrative device of getting one of the killers to re-enact his actions. The old killer has the help of members of his gang, a local branch of the Indonesian paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila (the Five-Principles Youth).

In this still from The Act of Killing, an ageing killer demonstrates his garrotting technique. ©2012 FINAL CUT FOR REAL APS, PIRAYA FILM AS AND NOVAYA ZEMLYA LTD

Pemuda Pancasila was founded in the 1960s as an anti-communist group in the north Sumatran city of Medan. Its success in carrying out the killings there led it to become a national paramilitary body, deployed by the regime of President Suharto as part of his dual approach of both terrorising the population and bringing development to the nation. The organisation runs on stand-over tactics and the supervision of local criminal activities, such as gambling.

Pemuda Pancasila survived the change of power when Suharto was forced out of office in 1998, and the film shows how well-placed Pemuda Pancasila is today.

In one scene, then Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, addresses a gathering of the organisation held in Medan, praising them as representatives of the spirit of free enterprise in a play on their role as preman, the Indonesian word for gangster, but which, deriving from the Dutch vrijman, also means “free man”.

On one level, The Act of Killing is a portrayal of how deeply entrenched criminality is in the Indonesian ruling class, receiving support from politicians at all levels, and indeed serving as the provider of political representatives and leaders at regional and national levels.

As Oppenheimer says of his film:

It’s about how a traumatic past remains alive in the present and continues to traumatise society and therefore enable corruption and a regime of fear.

A still from The Act of Killing. ©2012 FINAL CUT FOR REAL APS, PIRAYA FILM AS AND NOVAYA ZEMLYA LTD

An open wound

Is it any wonder that Indonesia has never come to terms with the mass killings that began in the latter months of 1965? Attempts at setting up a national reconciliation process were begun soon after the fall of Suharto in the late 90s, but only from one side. The initiative came from survivors from the left and from young people, often from religious groups, eager to sweep aside the dictator’s legacy. The military and those implicated in the killings have shown no reciprocal interest.

The attempts at reconciliation have been stymied from above. The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has declared that he does not want to dwell on the past. His declaration is hardly surprising, since his late father-in-law, General Sarwo Edhie, was one of the main organisers and leaders of the killings.

One of the most surprising aspects of The Act of Killing is that it does not explain the role of the military in leading the killings, even passing up the opportunity to focus on Sarwo Edhie when one Medan murderer points out the general’s picture on his wall.

This problem of representing responsibility for the killings leads to misunderstandings for viewers unfamiliar with Indonesian history.

Viewers such as Zizek who have not read up on the events come away with the idea that Pemuda Pancasila were responsible for killings outside Medan. In fact, the sites of the most intense killings were in East Java and Bali, where those responsible were the military, in conjunction with a Muslim body and militias from the Nationalist political party.

Zizek, in his review, also states the 1965 killings were primarily anti-Chinese. The killings were focussed on communists, but in Medan that included a left-wing organisation with chiefly Chinese membership, as well as an excuse for the Pemuda Pancasila to mobilise anti-Chinese racism for economic ends.

The Act of Killing arrived in Indonesia at the point at which activists were losing hope of anything being achieved. The national Human Rights Commission had just handed down a report on the killings, to have it rejected by the Attorney General on spurious grounds; Indonesia’s Constitutional Court had ruled that a truth and reconciliation commission was unlawful; and series of actions by both government and civil society groups had led to censorship of history books and the school curriculum.

A scene from The Act of Killing. ©2012 FINAL CUT FOR REAL APS, PIRAYA FILM AS AND NOVAYA ZEMLYA LTD

The film was not the first outside-made film to focus on the killings. Anthropologist Rob Lemelson’s film 40 Years of Silence movingly portrays the continued effects of the killings on the families of victims and former political prisoners.

The Act of Killing is more confronting than 40 Years of Silence because it focuses on the perpetrators, and through its portrayal of one, Anwar Congo, a not-too-bright, Hollywood-loving gangster, even crosses over the line of sympathy with the killers.

Official silence

Indonesian government officials have tried to avoid discussion of The Act of Killing (and they haven’t made the mistake of banning it, as some promoters of the film mistakenly suggest). They were probably adopting the standard official procedure when faced with a major problem: ignore it and hope it will go away. The publicity led last week to one Presidential spokesman complaining that the film was bad for Indonesia’s image, and trying to use a “two wrongs make a right” logic of drawing attention to issues like oppression of Aborigines in Australia.

The Act of Killing’s primary role in Indonesia has been to stimulate debate. The many private (“guerrilla”) showings, and a special issue of the national magazine Tempo based on the film, have reopened discussions of events.

A still from the film. ©2012 FINAL CUT FOR REAL APS, PIRAYA FILM AS AND NOVAYA ZEMLYA LTD

The reactions of Indonesian audiences have been varied. According to some reports, the experimental nature of the narrative, the length, and the surrealistic imagery has left mass audiences cold. Ariel Heryanto, a leading Indonesian cultural studies scholar, has already commented on this lack of strong reaction. As one Indonesian commentator observed to me, the film was not really made for Indonesian audiences.

Regardless of the content – and the film does have ethical and representational flaws – the main impact of the film is its symbolic value in Indonesia. The Act of Killing shows that the legacy of the mass murders of 1965 should not just go away. The killings need to be confronted as part of a conversation that is both national and international.

The Academy Awards have already made a contribution to such a conversation.


See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.

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