The genocide of Communists (or suspected Communists) in Indonesia in 1965 forms the subject of Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing”. Its objective is not only to confront Indonesian ‘official history’, still resonant with anti communist prejudices, but also to explore the ‘humanity’ of the perpetrators. Instead of relating historical events or presenting the victim’s perspectives, it follows the daily lives of the Indonesian Death squad members in the present day. Oppenheimer presents the perpetrators in particular, Anwar Congo (who lead the death squad) to give the viewer an insight into the motivation of the killings and the dominant socio-political influences.
Political motivation is often mentioned throughout the personal interviews with the death squad members. Oppenheimer asks the members to re-enact the killings that took place. The members are keen to do so in order to recreate a visual history of Indonesia’s past. The sense of loyalty towards the political party prevails, despite the reality of manslaughter, and has blinded the members and instilled them with such a deep patriotic view they were (and arguably still are) unable to reconcile that their actions were criminal: “Deep inside I was proud because I killed the communist who looked so cruel in the film”(Oppenheimer, 2012). Not only were the descriptions of the killings vivid in terms of verbatim descriptions from the members as they describe throwing bodies off rivers “like parachutes” but the re-enactment in different genres leaves the viewer with a sense of unease. The disjointed narrative jumps from genre to genre, depicting brutal torture and killing scenes in a mafia style and then suddenly transitioning incongruously to the musical genre with elaborate dancing numbers.
Arguably the documentary challenges the viewer by showcasing Indonesia’s past from a radically different perspective and also a rather emotional one from the antagonists’ perspective. Whilst the members are being interviewed by the Dialog Interview Show they state, “young people must remember their history” (Oppenheimer, 2012). Seemingly the members show no remorse (other than the occasional mention of being haunted by the killings in their dreams) and justify their actions. It is not until the end of the film, Anwar revisits one of the sites of torture and he is shown on camera regretting his actions – he is so affected that he begins throwing up on the site. Interestingly the last filmic scene where Anwar is depicting a dying communist being tortured about to have his head sliced off with silver wire is where he states “I felt like I was dead for a moment” (Oppenheimer, 2012).
Anwar Congo, re-enacting a torture scene as a victim. (Oppenheimer, J. 2012)
As the film’s primary aim is to educate Indonesian people about their past, it is pivotal to gauge the response of the Indonesian people. When the film was screened at Yogyakarta the responses were mixed. One infuriated audience member suggested: “An alternative title of the film would be A Celebration of Killing. (The Guardian, 2014)”. He felt that the depiction glorified the murderers and there was nothing funny about these events. Another audience member, an academic who was a political prisoner and suffered brutal atrocities was ‘profoundly touched’ and felt it was imperative for younger generations to see this and to establish a society with sharply contrasting values. (The Guardian, 2014)
Overall Oppenheimer creates a highly engaging piece by turning our expected notions of a documentary upside down creating a disjointed narrative taking us on a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil. Oppenheimer presents the killers in a highly unorthodox manner- by allowing them freedom to present their perspective in order to allow their ‘humanity to be seen’. Above all, it compels them to look at their acts. As with his juxtaposition of film genres, Oppenheimer questions the good vs. evil rhetoric in films by ultimately depicting that despite their justification, the killers repent their actions. At the core, Oppenheimer elucidates that it is too glib to think these perpetrators were all fiends, it is more socially relevant to understand they are people who are capable paradoxically of both evil and goodness and that social structures may contort even the most heinous act into a justifiable one. The controversial approach to such a serious topic, has elicited a global conversation –as Bob Mandello states The Act of Killing is “a virtually unprecedented social document” (The Verge, 2015). The film has universally amplified the issue, so much so, that Indonesia cannot continue to present a benign version of history.
(Oppenheimer, J. 2012)
Bjerregaard, M. 2014, . Available: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/mar/05/act-of-killing-screening-in-indonesiaMarch 28].
Oppenheimer, J. 2012, The Act of Killing.
Zelenko, M. 2015, . Available: http://www.theverge.com/2015/7/15/8971233/the-act-of-killing-joshua-oppenheimer-interview-the-look-of-silence-documentaryMarch 28].