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5.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Act of Killing, DVD, 17 Jan 2014
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This review is from: The Act of Killing [DVD] (DVD)
"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Milan Kundera

As soon as I heard about The Act of Killing, I pre-ordered the DVD, and subsequently watched it as soon as it was delivered. I've now watched both the theatrical release and the director's cut, leaving about a month in between to catch my breath.

The other reviews on this page are highly commendable, and I'd especially like to thank Tommy Dooley, Paul Allaer, dipesh parmar and Stephen C. Rife for sharing their thoughts about the film. I want to respond to some points these reviewers have made by way of clarifying what's going on here. Firstly, Joshua Oppenheimer did not set out to make an expose of the perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965-66; rather he was interested in telling the story of the victims and their families. But he found his path in that direction obstructed. It was almost by accident that he stumbled upon his subject, finding the perpetrators of this massacre all too willing to talk about what they had done. The director had the brains and the guts to follow up and, after consulting with human rights groups, decided to switch his focus to a group of perpetrators for two reasons: he was able to establish easy access, and because he realised that this angle was going to reveal something not just about what happened forty-five years ago, but also a great deal about contemporary Indonesian politics and society, the legacy of the events of 65-66 as it were. So yes, this is a "meet the killers" documentary, but it's a lot more than that -- it's a meditation on killing, an interrogation of killers' motives, and an exploration of modern Indonesian society all rolled into one. A lot has been made of the unusual, indeed unique, methodology of the film whereby the subjects have been given free rein to re-enact their crimes, sometimes in the most extraordinarily weird, imaginative, and explicit way. The genius of Oppenheimer's approach was not to get them to do all this, but to catch the moments in between: the asides, the reflections, and the emotion. The filmmaker is not passive -- he makes pointed remarks himself sometimes, and also asks awkward questions -- but on the whole he stands back in the documentary and lets his subjects appear to be in control. Only one of the subjects ever realises what Oppenheimer's true motives were in allowing them this freedom, and I'll come on to him below; otherwise they carry on blissfully deluded about what they are doing. Of course, they are trying to come to terms with the past, albeit it in a totally confused way.

Before talking a bit more about the gang in question it's necessary to address the vital subject of context. This documentary does not really attempt to explain why the Indonesian massacre irrupted in 1965; there is no back story. Stephen C. Rife makes a valid critical remark: "A broader view might have been more appropriate, and context, provided primarily by an opening text, is wanting..." Although true, I think this is an unfair criticism in a way because the filmmaker had to make a decision about what his documentary was going to be about, and as his title suggests, this film is about killing and not about political context as such. Rife's argument is well taken though -- it is vital to understand why the Indonesian massacre happened. The back story has a lot to do with Cold War politics and the entirely machiavellian nature of post-war Anglo-American foreign policy. The trigger to the massacre was apparently an attempted coup d'etat and execution of six generals by a faction within Indonesia's military. The events surrounding this coup are very murky and it's not clear who was doing what or why. However, after the coup Suharto moved very quickly to take control of the country by eliminating the Indonesian Communist Party and left-leaning President Sukarno. An anti-communist blood bath followed, directly organised by the military and supported by the US and the UK. A very good book to read on this topic is "Constructive Bloodbath in Indonesia, The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66" (2009), by Nathanial Mehr. Judging by what he says in interviews, it's obvious that Joshua Oppenheimer has read this book and is therefore personally familiar with the whole context of what happened in Indonesia, and why it happened; his documentary's narrative does not go into all this because there's no time for it. As an aside, I want to say that I personally believe the Indonesian military attempted coup of '65 was directly planned by the CIA -- all the circumstantial evidence suggests as much, and therefore the US is even more culpable for the massacre than is generally supposed. Certainly there is hard evidence to show that both the United States and Britain aided and abetted the massacre and did absolutely nothing to stop it; on the contrary, they stood back and applauded the results, their multinational corporations stepping to share the spoils after Suharto had firmly established himself in power by wiping out the very people who may have resisted neo-colonialism. The massacre, as so many like it around the world, thus had much to do with the securing of resources. The Indonesian military, finding the killing of large numbers of people hard work, enlisted gangsters and Muslim youth and paramilitary groups to help do their atrocious deeds -- we may never know how many were killed, but half a million is a safe estimate. It was a ferocious pogrom.

Enter Anwar Congo, Herman Kota (a junior gang member), and Adi Zulkadry, Congo and Zulkadry just two of the many gangsters enlisted by the Indonesian military to do their dirty work in the sixties. These two individuals talk with an alarming frankness about their past murdering, still valorised by pro-Suharto elements within Indonesia today. What emerges clearly here is that both historically and today the perpetrators believed that there was nothing wrong with killing a "communist." Of course, this belief, prevalent also in the United States, is totally wrong -- to kill someone because they're a communist is like killing someone because they are a Jew, or because they are left-handed; it is extreme pathological discrimination based on an arbitrary category. But no one gets it in this film: all the participants justify their past crimes in terms of anti-communism. Some of the most interesting, and disturbing, sequences in this documentary occur when Anwar introduces us to his patrons past and present, namely a newspaper proprietor who helped identify targets in 1965-66, the present governor of Northern Sumatra, and the neo-fascist Pancasila Youth paramilitary organisation, all of whom still unquestioningly believe that the killings of the mid-sixties were entirely justified in the name of anti-communism. Even when the gangsters question anti-communist propaganda, even when they know it this propaganda was false, they still cling to the deluded belief that it was okay to do what they did because they were killing "communists". "Beating people up is sometimes needed", says an Indonesian vice president at a Pancasila rally reminiscent of Nazi rallies in the 1930s, only this was filmed not in the 1930s, or the 1960s, but by Joshua Oppenheimer in contemporary Indonesia.

A lot of commentary has centred on Anwar Congo, who I suppose is the "star" of this documentary. Congo is central to the film because in a way he is the one who is making it all happen; he is the one who is trying to come to terms with what he did, albeit in a very confused way: he knows it was wrong to kill, but he is convinced it was necessary to kill communists, "My conscience told me that they had to be killed..", Congo says, lying to himself yet again. Anwar is quite charismatic, and he has a lot of authority among his peers because he killed so many. For me though, Adi Zulkadry, one of Anwar Congo's associates, is the most interesting subject insofar as he is probably a more typical perpetrator type; at least he is less likely to go into convolutions about what he did, and he knows very well that in re-enacting torture and murder the gang are playing dangerously with official history -- he is the only one who has some inkling of what the repercussions of their filming may be in the wider world: "This film will disprove all our propaganda about the communists..", says Adi at one point, very pertinently. Adi has no appealing qualities: he is an out and out coward and a thug; he has no remorse for what he did in the past, and what he did included stabbing to death his girlfriend's father, and other Chinese people, because they were...Chinese?...no, no, because they were communists, of course. Adi also repeats the cliché that it's the winners who write history and heck the Americans killed the Indians when they got in the way, just like we had to kill a bunch of commies...Perhaps the saddest sequence in this film is the one of Adi Zulkadry walking through a sterile shopping mall with his innocent wife and daughter, himself somewhat distracted and disinterested, every bit the smug, chauvinist patriarch. As for Herman Koto, he is almost too pathetic to be taken seriously, but here he is one minute extorting money from Chinese traders in a market, the next minute standing for elected office simply so he can rake in more money selling building licenses. For these gangsters at the dirty end in 1965 it was always about the money -- Aldi confirms this in a moment of reflection it would be easy to miss. The one question Oppenheimer didn't ask Anwar, which I would have asked, is "How much did you get paid to do this?"
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