Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022
Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice . Starts on Ap...
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
The Act of Killing
I finally saw The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer last week.
It's an extraordinary film that opens up what happened during the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-1966; the killing of up to 3 million people took place after a coup allegedly organised by the Indonesian Communist Party (you can read a different version of events here).
Following this coup, the argument goes that for stability to be restored, lots of people had to be killed - otherwise chaos would reign. It's not a very good argument but it's one that has dominated public thinking in Indonesia for the last 60 years.
So military commanders (including, especially, the current president's father-in-law) were sent out across the province to encourage the murder of civilian leftists.
The Act of Killing focusses on one group that was involved in the killings, Pemuda Pancasila. PP are the biggest of a number of paramilitary groups in Indonesia that were/are involved in organised criminal activities.
The main protagonist in the film is a man called Anwar Congo, a dapper, melancholy chap who describes who he killed and how he killed them. Other supporting actors describe the women they raped, the houses they burned, the money they robbed - and we see how the past is still apparent in the present when one member of PP extorts money from ethnic Chinese market stall holders.
Things get weird when Oppenheimer gets the protagonists to dress up as gangsters and re-enact their crimes. A touch of remorse starts coming through. There is film of PP conferences, we see provincial governors and government leaders openly talking about the necessity of gangsterism in civil society. We hear PP talk about illegal evictions, smuggling and gambling as income streams.
Already the film is an incredible document on the role of gangsterism in Indonesian society and how the narrative of the evil communists has been upheld over the years. It's the Age of Madness, where Wrong is Right and Right is Wrong.
But then the main protagonists begin to question what happened and ask whether they were the really evil ones. A man whose stepfather was dragged out of his house and murdered describes the effect on his life, the way he was forced to move to a village on the edge of the jungle, how he had no schooling. Anwar Congo describes the nightmares he has, another killer questions if it's not time to rewrite the Indonesian history books.
But the really extraordinary thing is that the killers believe that Oppenheimer is making a film that supports their initial view of the killings being a good thing. They also believe that he is making a dramatic film of the killings, complete with a script, songs, dancing and a giant goldfish.
Anwar Congo believes that 'Josh' is his friend. There are layers of subterfuge, deceit and dishonesty all round. what is staged and what is not staged is no longer apparent.
How Oppenheim managed this is unfathomable (he says it is because the killers loved American films - though dancing off into a giant goldfish is more Bollywood than Hollywood).
How he managed to make such a sensitive film in the first place is even more unfathomable. A clue might be that certain major players in the killers are barely mentioned - in particular the army (but also religious organisations and the civil service). As a result the film gives the impression that they were not major protagonists in the murders. There is a nod that this is not the case in the film, but it is only a nod.
Despite all this, the film is quite incredible and questions what is real, what is staged, what is friendship and what is not.
Here is a review of the film that calls it manipulative.
And here is an interview with the director.
Here is how the film fits into a wider debate opening on the events of the 1960s in Indonesia.