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The Act Of Killing


In a country where killers are celebrated as heroes, the filmmakers challenge unrepentant death squad leader Anwar Congo and his friends to dramatise their role in genocide. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to be stars in their favourite film genres—gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims. This is a cinematic fever dream, an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.

Running Time: 159 min.
Subject(s): Asian Studies, Author's POV, Conflicts, Crime, Ethnography, Genocide, History, Hybrid, Law and Justice, Politics, Society
Language(s): Indonesian
Subtitles: English
Producer(s): Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Joram ten Brink, Michael Uwemedimo, Anne Köhncke, Torstein Grude
Cinematographer: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree
Editor(s): Niels Pagh Andersen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Ariadna Fatjo-vilas Mestre,
Production Company: Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS, Novaya Zemlya ltd, Spring Films ltd


  • The Guardian
    ★★★★★ "The most compelling thing you'll ever see"
  • Independent on Saturday
    ★★★★★ "An utterly fascinating, chilling, but important film"
  • The Sunday Times
    ★★★★★ "Shatteringly powerful"
  • The Daily Mail
    ★★★★★ "This might be the most important documentary ever"
  • The Metro
    ★★★★★ "Simply the best film of the year"
  • The Financial Times
    ★★★★ "Like no movie seen before"
  • Little White Lies
    ★★★★★ "Unlike anything else out there"
  • Time Out
    ★★★★★ "Staggeringly original"
  • The Evening Standard
    ★★★★★ "A devastating, surreal must-see"
  • The Skinny
    ★★★★★ "Shocking and surreal"
  • The Arts Desk
    ★★★★★ "A strange and startling documentary"
  • Cine Vue
    ★★★★★ "Challenges the very limitations of what a documentary can be "
  • Tempo Magazine (Indonesia's premier news magazine)
    "THE ACT OF KILLING is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel. [It] witnesses the bloody destruction of a foundation of this nation at the hands of Indonesians themselves. On top of a mountain of corpses, our fellow countrymen rolled out a red carpet for the growth of gangster capitalism and political Islam. In documenting this, The Act of Killing exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of this country’s notions of ‘patriotism' and ‘justice.’ The film achieves all this thanks to the director’s genius and audacious choice of filmmaking method."
    Ariel Heryanto, Historian and Cultural Critic
    The Act of Killing / Review / / July 19, 2013
    by Stephen Boone

    Killing is not necessarily a cold business, and killers are not necessarily cold-blooded. "The Act of Killing" introduces us to several Indonesian mass murderers who could be movie stars. They jump at the chance offered by this documentary's maker, Joshua Oppenheimer, to make their own movie, a chronicle of their years carrying out an anti-Communist purge that claimed over a million lives in 1965-66. When the military recruited them as muscle, they became the most feared and sadistic of the liquidators. But they did it all in style: Notorious killer Anwar Congo points to a black-and-white photo of young man who looks like a sleek hybrid of Charles Bronson and Smokey Robinson: "That's me. I'm wearing a plaid shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes…" He advises the film's costumer not to dress him like that for the massacre scenes. "I wore jeans for killing. To look cool, I imitated movie stars."

    Still fit and spry in his sixties, Congo uses the film to confront facts long denied publicly and long sublimated personally. He and his pals believe that no court, from local authorities to the International Criminal Court, can prosecute them for their crimes 40 years after the fact. This gives them the confidence to deliver unguarded performances for their movie and offer astonishingly candid testimony for Oppenheimer's. Yet almost every night, Congo says, some of the hundreds of victims he killed with his own hands visit him in his dreams.

    One of the more excruciating recurring motifs here is the sight of present-day civilians doing their best real-life acting whenever these gangsters are around. Indonesia may have returned to a semblance of democracy after strong man Suharto's resignation in 1998, but the murderers still control politicians and business leaders.

    And the people still fear them. Chinese shop keepers and market vendors who are old enough to have been around when their people were indiscriminately included in the purge are forced to smile wide while handing protection money over to Safit Pardede, arguably the vilest of the gangsters in the film. (Later on, while taking a break from filming a reenactment of a village massacre, he reminisces wistfully with his buddies about raping fourteen year-old girls. "I'd say, 'It's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me!'") Such moments made me wonder whether I was watching yet another reenactment, since it seems pretty crazy for a thug to openly admit crimes on camera.

    It appears that longstanding corruption has solidified into a core Indonesian principle, like democracy or capitalism. We see politicians make speeches proudly declaring that they are gangsters, careful to remind the crowd that the term "gangster" in their society only means "free man." A leading newspaper publisher brags about how he manufactured evidence against suspected Communists, providing long lists for the death squads. This is the smiliest atrocity documentary I've ever seen.

    Between camera setups on the historical film, Congo's neighbor Suryono shares a story about watching the death squads abduct his communist stepfather. Quick to reassure the gangsters that "I'm not criticizing what we're doing," he describes finding his stepfather's body under an oil barrel the next day. At 12 years of age, he had to help bury his stepdad in a roadside ditch. Moments after this recollection, Oppenheimer keeps the documentary camera focused on Suryono, whose cavalier facade is crumbling by the second. He seems to implode as Congo's friend Adi Zulkadry, a flinty veteran executioner who reminds me of Ray Winstone, browbeats the others about sugarcoating their crimes: "Everything Anwar and I have always said is false. It's not the communists who were cruel. I'm absolutely aware that we were cruel."

    This seemingly odd compulsion to confess becomes the film's (and the film-within-the-film's) grandest special effect. We are witnessing nature's justice, a force of law more precise than the courts. It squeezes the truth out of these guys, who can't seem to shut up about what awful people they are and how incessant partying, self-medication and relatively prosperous family lives keep them from facing their crimes squarely. Denial comes as naturally as breath, in perpetual tandem with convulsive shame. When that doesn't do the trick, there's always relativism: Says Zulkadry, "When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. [Bush claimed] Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right, according to Bush, but now it's wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be today's morality but tomorrow we'll have the Jakarta Conventions…"

    The historical film-within-a-film doesn't seem to have a lavish budget, but it does appear lovingly crafted by a discerning, resourceful crew. The reenactments strive for brutal accuracy while a few fantasy sequences give the impression of a comical telenovela co-directed by John Waters and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Congo's pal, the portly, vicious but hilarious paramilitary leader Herman Koto, even appears in outrageous beauty-queen drag, an Indonesian Divine.

    There's never been a shortage of dark, grim documentaries that catalog life's cruelty, horrors and banality of evil. Thanks to the documentary genre, I have watched hundreds of hours of war crimes, genocides and miscarriages of justice carried out by unremarkable men with dimly lit souls. "The Act of Killing" bids to outdo them all. I'm not sure even the film's powerhouse executive producers, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, have ever presented cognitive havoc so densely yet elegantly packed into one documentary.

    The visual and aural rhythms of this one feel as if Oppenheimer is slowly, carefully climbing a mountain of lament and shame, each footfall made with absolute certainty that there's solid, (if jagged and painful) rock underneath. When we arrive at the top, the view is majestic in its sadness. From this vantage point, the last half hour of "The Act of Killing" surveys a divinely art directed stretch of hell. It looks familiar, a place of law and order and malls and McDonalds. Doting grandfatherhood has brought out the gentleness in Congo, whose beautiful smile and gentle laugh lines make him resemble Nelson Mandela (rather than the dictator his friends say his dark skin evokes, Idi Amin).

    Watching his finished film with his grandsons, he begins to understand something essential about himself and his victims. Oppenheimer seizes the moment, posing a question that knocks the wind right out of him. This masterpiece about propaganda, cinema and vanity as instruments of power and terror ends on an excruciatingly sustained, righteous money shot: a monster who could have been a good man suffocates on the truth.
    Stephen Boone
  • Columbia Journalism Review
    In the early hours of October 1, 1965, a group of junior officers in the Indonesian military assassinated six generals and threw their bodies down a well. Their coup attempt was crushed by nightfall, but the murders became the opening scene in the founding of present-day Indonesia. The senior surviving officer, General Suharto, accused Indonesia’s Communist Party of being behind the killings, and, in the words of historian John Roosa, an authority on these events, “orchestrated an extermination of persons affiliated with the party.” This was the height of the Cold War, and Indonesia had the largest communist party outside of a communist country, with affiliates ranging from labor unions to intellectuals to peasant farmers. In the name of saving Indonesia from the threat of Marxism, the army and its affiliated militias carried out one of the largest mass killings of the 20th century, executing 1.5 million suspected communists in less than a year.

    By March 1966, Suharto was running a military dictatorship that would last more than 30 years, and the story of the murdered generals was the pretext for his entire regime. “Under Suharto,” Roosa explains, “anti-communism became the state religion, complete with sacred sites, rituals, and dates.” Each year, Indonesian students were required to view a graphically violent, Hollywood-style dramatization of the murders. The executioners, many of them active gangsters, were celebrated as national heroes and rewarded with political power. Even after the Suharto regime ended in 1998, this power structure remained. There was no official apology or reconciliation, and the killers continued to live alongside their victims’ families. The extermination of communists became as much a part of Indonesia’s founding mythos as the extermination of Native Americans is a part of America’s—a bit of necessary unpleasantness.

    The Act of Killing, a global success on the film-festival circuit that had a brief theatrical run in the US this summer, tells the story of the massacre from the perspective of the men who perpetrated it. Joshua Oppenheimer, the film’s director, encouraged former executioners to re-enact their deeds any way they wished. He filmed the re-enactments and the creative process behind them, and blended the two into a documentary in which the killers serve as both subjects and artistic collaborators. The premise sounds offensive and deliberately provocative, like some outré work of post-colonial, art-house horror. But the idea emerged organically, over nearly a decade of filming in Indonesia, as a documentary and investigative technique well suited to tell the story of the massacre.

    When Oppenheimer first arrived in Indonesia in 2001, he began talking to surviving victims and their families. He and his co-director, Christine Cynn, lived for a year with a village of survivors in North Sumatra, working on an experimental film that became the forerunner to The Act of Killing. Filming was constantly disrupted by local police or military or thugs, and they worried for their subjects’ safety.

    The silence enforced on the victims’ families was particularly ironic when compared with the boastfulness of the killers themselves. And when Oppenheimer hit upon the idea of turning to these men for an explanation of the massacre, all obstruction ceased. He would simply ask a former executioner what he did for a living and, within minutes, be taken to a massacre sight and told horrific stories about beating people to death with bricks. In February 2004, an executioner took the film crew to a site near a river where he had helped kill 10,500 people in less than three months, then posed for pictures that look eerily like the ones that would emerge from Abu Ghraib just two months later, smiling and giving the thumbs up as the river into which he had dumped the bodies meandered through the background.
    Michael Meyer
  • Democracy Now! Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer
    Amy Goodman
  • Realscreen Article
    Kevin Ritchie
  • Wall Street Journal
    Daniel Ziv
  • CNN
    On a traffic-choked street in Bali's capital, Denpasar, Edo walks through his family's shop to an empty back room. Only there does he feel safe enough to explain why he's afraid.

    "Well, it's because probably the killers are still out there," he says.

    The killers he refers to are those who Edo believes are responsible for the murder of his grandfather, one of between 500,000 and 1 million people estimated by human rights groups to have been killed by military death squads during anti-communist purges across Indonesia in 1965 and 1966.

    The mass killings were sparked by a failed coup on September 30, 1965 and the murder of a number of generals in the military. A major general in the army at the time, Suharto blamed the coup on communists, ousted President Sukarno -- the country's first post-independence leader -- and sanctioned the hunt for those responsible. After assuming the presidency in 1967, Suharto ruled Indonesia for 31 years until 1998.

    Many contend those targeted during the purges were not communists but ethnic Chinese, or anyone with left-wing views.

    Edo describes how his grandfather had been kidnapped from his home late one night, targeted he believes because of his work with a government organization set up to integrate ethnic Chinese and local Balinese.

    "Everything broke down after that. The family business and their home was burned down, they lost everything and had to start from scratch," says Edo.
    "I am pretty sure one uncle of mine knows who did it. (The murderers) are still alive and around and I still have my fear."

    For thousands like Edo in Bali and across the rest of Indonesia, confronting that fear and addressing this brutal period in the country's history is something most have been unwilling or unable to do openly.

    Many worry that publicly dissenting from official versions of the events and coup -- ingrained through Suharto-era propaganda, like the 1984 film "Treachery of G30S/PKI" -- could lead to retribution from those connected to the killings. More often than not, killers and victims' families still live in the same communities.
    "It's like the Nazis winning and then they are still in the government," says Edo. "People live with fear, they are afraid to get involved."

    However things are slowly changing. That Edo is now facing his fears in part comes from the impact of "The Act ofKilling," a new documentary by American director Joshua Oppenheimer.

    While books and other films have told some of the survivors' stories, Oppenheimer's film recounts for the first time the violence from the perpetrators' perspective.

    Captivating, powerful and at times bizarre, it follows the boastful but ultimately conflicted Anwar Congo, a low-level gangster turned executioner, as he reenacts how he and others murdered hundreds of people. As well as the moral and personal journey taken by Congo, the film also shows the links between the murderers, paramilitary groups and government officials.

    "Rather than showing Indonesians something they don't already know, (the film) exposes something that they already know to be true and what they are afraid to address," says Oppenheimer, who spent around seven years making the film around the Sumatran city of Medan, with a largely local crew who had to be credited anonymously.

    "(The survivors told me) we need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" saying that the king is naked... everybody already knows it, but if it can be said so powerfully, so forcefully, so emotionally by the perpetrators themselves, then there will be no going back."

    At two secret screenings last December and February, Edo showed the film to members of a local film club. Some were too afraid to even watch it, while others thought it could stir up new trouble.

    "Some in the audience asked, 'Why are you opening up old wounds?' But the wounds are still open wide and people are still afraid," says Edo.

    Others, particularly the younger generation, have become emboldened by the film and the chance for greater openness, like Termana, a member of Komunitas Taman 65, a Bali-based group comprised of victims' family members.

    "The Act of Killing gave us an opportunity to talk about the events," he says at group meeting just a few hundred meters from one of Bali's most popular tourist beaches.

    "(The killings) happened here in Bali and show the dark side of the paradise island, but also the dark side of family life." Termana's grandfather disappeared one night in early 1966 and was never seen again.

    Through slow and at time painful discussions with family members more is being learned about the difficult period. Termana admits he didn't know until recently that a village in western Bali is called "Dark Field" because it was where up to 600 people are believed have been slaughtered.

    The perpetrator says Roro, a fellow Komunitas Taman 65 group member, is believed to be the head of another village, who is known more openly for his charisma and dancing skills. Like Anwar Congo in Oppenheimer's film, Roro says the village leader was not shy to boast of his murderous exploits, believing that he carried out his violent acts with impunity and for the right reasons.

    However, since the film and the growing groundswell of discussion about the events it relates to, he has become less inclined to boast about his exploits, says Roro.

    Monday, September 30 is the anniversary of the 1965 coup and the date Oppenheimer has chosen to make the film available to everyone in Indonesia to watch online. He decided not to try for a general cinema release for the film, fearing that if it was banned and people watched it, it could legitimize more violence.

    "Somehow I think that because Indonesia is moving on, the film is able to have its impact," he says.

    "Ten years ago maybe too many people were actually involved, complicit with the military dictatorship and too invested in its power structures ... but now younger Indonesians are saying 'I want my country to function.'"

    While welcomed by Komintas Taman 65, there are real fears widespread viewings of the film could stir anger and reprisals from younger members of survivors' families and a new conflict with paramilitary groups.

    "I do worry that there may be a new conflict," says Tka, at the Komunitas Taman 65 meeting. "After Suharto's 'New Order' collapsed we thought (the perpetrators) would be found guilty."

    So far, official attempts to revisit the events of 1965 and 1966 have failed. While Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights published a report last year stating the anti-communist purge was a gross violation of human rights, it was not taken any further by the country's Attorney General. A draft bill for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission also failed in 2006.

    "How do you establish the truth after all this time? asks Roro. "Truth is hard."
    Dean Irvine
  • Al-Jazeera America
    Former death squad members Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in full make-up as they prepare for one of the re-enactment sequences in the documentary "The Act of Killing," about mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66.

    “The Act of Killing” is a powerful and often horrifying inquiry into mass killings in Indonesia. Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed former leaders of the death squads that executed hundreds of thousands of alleged communists between 1965 and 1966. Many of the perpetrators of these mass murders are in positions of influence today, and their political heirs form the backbone of the Indonesian establishment. None have been prosecuted for their crimes.

    This extraordinary film features elaborate re-enactments of the massacres, as staged and acted by the killers themselves. Oppenheimer’s central subject is the death squad leader Anwar Congo, who recounts killing as many as 1,000 men, garroting his victims with wire. One of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, Anwar is celebrated as a national hero by many in Indonesia.

    Earlier this month the film’s production company, Drafthouse Films, announced that “The Act of Killing” would be made available as a free digital download in Indonesia starting Sept. 30, the anniversary of the start of the 1965-66 genocide.
    Anwar Congo is an extraordinary figure, in part because he seems like a man who is trying to confirm his guilt in a society that keeps insisting on his innocence. How did you come to him, and was he typical of the other perpetrators you interviewed?

    He was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. I started this project in collaboration with a community of survivors, and every time we got together the military would stop the filming. They would basically not allow the survivors to speak. But the survivors would send me to film their neighbors in the plantation village where they were living — neighbors who they knew had been involved in the killings — in the hopes that I would be able to find out how their loved ones had died.

    I would go and meet these people, and I would introduce myself as just the foreigner living in the village, hoping they would be curious and invite me in, and they were. I would try very gently to ask about the past, very innocuous questions like “What did you do for a living?” And I was immediately assailed by these answers which were boastful, grotesque, horrific stories of killing, often delivered in front of their grandchildren, their children, their wives.

    The contrast between the survivors, who were bullied into silence, and the perpetrators, who were boasting about what they had done, shook me. I felt as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power. And I knew from that point that this would demand of me however much of my life it would take.

    The first time I meet Anwar, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people.

    So I filmed perpetrator after perpetrator after perpetrator. I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across the region. They offered to take me to places where they had killed within minutes of meeting me. I would accept these invitations, and as soon as we could arrange such a trip we would go. And they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they had killed, complain that they hadn’t thought to bring weapons along as props, or friends along to play victims.

    That scene in the beginning of the film, when Anwar shows how he killed with wire — that was the very first time I filmed him. Two things were more extreme in Anwar than in the others. One was the boasting. The first time I meet him, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people. Other perpetrators had approached that degree of grotesque absurdity, but this was one step beyond.

    But more importantly, and I think directly related to the stridency of his boasting, was the sense that his pain was close to the surface. I intuited then that his boasting is a desperate attempt to deny what he knows — namely, that he has done something terrible — and convince himself, and everybody around him, that it was right. That is, the boasting turns out to be a sign not of pride, but the opposite. And it is defensive.

    It seems clear that Anwar is suffering from some form of PTSD. And it’s interesting that all the perpetrators took you to the site of these brutal killings. Do you think there’s something about re-enactment that allows people to access an old trauma, something that’s not been fully processed? And were you conscious of that when you started using it in your film?

    The survivors and the human rights community in Indonesia at the beginning of this journey said, “We need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and exposes for Indonesians what they already know” — both this traumatic history, but above all the way this traumatic history underpins a regime of fear and corruption in the present. In that sense, I used re-enactment in the film because it was a way of exposing impunity. Every time a perpetrator would take me to the place where he had killed and cavalierly show me how he had done it, it was material for exposing the nature of this regime.

    But I think what motivates the perpetrators to re-enact is also an attempt, paradoxically, to deal with their pain. The way I can explain this seeming paradox — how can they be trying on the one hand to celebrate what they’ve done, and on the other hand be trying to deal with their pain — is this: You cannot go to the place where you killed and with a smile show how you did it if you are not somehow insisting that it was great, or right, or worthy. In that sense each re-enactment is a denial of the moral meaning of what they did. So I think they’re unconsciously drawn to the trauma. But at the same time, once they’re there, rather than have the courage to say, “This is wrong, look what we did,” and be utterly devastated by that — rather than that, they celebrate, justify and boast, in order to reassure themselves that what they did was right, and to protect themselves from the traumatic force of the very memories they are drawn to explore.

    By the end of the film, when Anwar returns to the site where he’s committed these murders, he has a very different reaction from the first time you filmed him at the site. Instead of dancing, he’s doubled over in pain. On some level, the film has allowed him to confront what he has done.

    It’s interesting to look at the end of the film. We would never shoot more than one re-enactment at a time or plan more than one fiction scene at a time. Anwar would plan it, we would shoot it and he would watch it, and in reaction to that he would propose the next scene. So the method is like a man painting his own portrait — he paints, he steps back, he paints a little more.

    So in this one re-enactment, Anwar plays the victim being strangled, and he feels traumatized by it. Then he proposes this scene at the waterfall — where he imagines the victims waiting to give him a medal to thank him for sending them to heaven. And of course that scene is a direct response to the previous scene, an attempt to wash the pain away.

    That scene at the waterfall elicits weeping from Indonesian viewers, but laughter at the same time — because there is for Indonesian viewers the cathartic joy of seeing the whole regime unmasked. The scene is almost a punch line for the entire regime: This is a society that was founded on mass murder, where the perpetrators are in power, where the victims should be thanking them for sending them to heaven. So you can see this tension between my project, which is to expose a regime of impunity, and Anwar’s project, which is to somehow deal with his pain.

    And in that sense, we never really were friends. We care about each other a lot; I spoke to him today. But both of us were trying to work out much bigger projects than the relationship. He’s trying to deal with decades of pain, from killing hundreds and hundreds of people; I’m trying to expose a regime on behalf of survivors and the human rights community. Maybe that tension animates the whole film — the tension between empathy for Anwar as he struggles with his past and repulsion of seeing what this whole regime is about.
    Was it his idea to act the role of the victim?

    It was his idea; it was something he was doing from the very beginning. At the outset of the film, he has a length of wire around his neck showing me how he killed. He says, “Now I must show you how the victim died.”

    The memory of watching victim after victim being strangled to death may be more traumatic than anything else for him. And yet he’s drawn to it. Perhaps by re-enacting it he tames it, makes it safe — builds up a kind of protective scar tissue around the wound. Maybe the film gave him a space to feel guilty.

    Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to 'construct' our world. You use movies and the language of fiction in the context of a documentary. What is the film saying about the relationship between fiction and truth?

    The film is about how we create our world through storytelling. We are constantly — in order to cope with painful realities — shuffling through third-rate, half-remembered fantasies taken from movies, from TV, from people we admire. We do this individually, we do it collectively — we tell stories to escape our most painful truths.

    Cinema is of course the great storytelling medium of modernity. And it just so happened that these particular killers had this love of American movies; they were [in fact originally] recruited from the ranks of movie theater gangsters. So, organically, film genre became the medium for exploring and expressing its own implication in the performance and remembrance of violence. I don’t think the film is saying that violent movies cause violent behavior. The example Anwar gives of a movie that directly participated in the killings is an Elvis Presley musical. He says that he walked out of the cinema and danced across the street and killed happily. Well, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. The issue, rather, is storytelling as a means of escape and denial.

    It feels also that the film is saying that the structure of fiction allows us to access a truth that is perhaps not as easy to get to in a factual way.

    Yes, that too. Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to “construct” our world. It’s haunted by the unimaginable and the unspeakable. It’s like Anwar is trying to chase his shadow through the making of the fiction.

    What is the life of the film in Indonesia? I know you’ve been doing private screenings. Will you be submitting the film to the censorship board?

    As of April, there had been 500 screenings in 95 cities, averaging in size of about 200 people. So although underground, a lot of them are big — some of them have been 700 people.

    The official response to the film being as hostile as it has been — not the public response, the public response has been wonderful — but with the government giving no indication of even considering the National Human Rights Commission’s demands for a presidential apology or truth commission, and with nasty remarks about the film from leading high-ranking army generals, we don’t want to take the risk of submitting it to the censorship board. Because if we do, and they ban it, then it’s a crime to screen the film at all. That becomes an excuse in Indonesia for the army or paramilitary groups to physically attack screenings. We don’t want that to happen.

    Do you think a truth and reconciliation process is possible in Indonesia?

    I think it is. I’m so impressed by the younger generation of Indonesians and their desire to articulate their country’s past, and then to articulate what they already know but have been too afraid to articulate about their country’s present — about the use of gangsters, the corruption, and the chilling effect of fear on Indonesian democracy. The hunger for Indonesians to talk about these problems is really encouraging.

    Can you go back to Indonesia?

    I think I could get in, but I’m not sure I could get out again. Today Anwar, who misses me, said maybe we could meet in Kuala Lumpur.
    Does the film actually contain any information that was not already known in Indonesia, or was it the framing of it that made it so shocking for Indonesian audiences?

    I think it’s the framing of it. Indonesians might not have known the details of the killings — they know that something awful happened and that they don’t talk about it. But I think fundamentally, what’s really powerful about the film is what it shows about Indonesia’s present, and about our common humanity when we build our present-day reality on terror and on lies.
    Katie Kitamura
  • AlJazeera English
    Joseph Nevins
  • Time World
    Yenni Kwok
  • Wall Street Journal
    Daniel Ziv
  • The Daily Show

    Extended versions:
  • Video Librarian
    Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary centers on Indonesia’s violent campaign against Communists and other “undesirables,” begun in the 1960s, and still being waged by powerful paramilitary groups. Recommended.
  • “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade."
    Werner Herzog
  • "An extraordinary portrayal of genocide. To the inevitable question: what were they thinking, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an answer. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film."
    Errol Morris
  • "An absolute and unique masterpiece."
    Dusan Makavejev
  • "If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than THE ACT OF KILLING. [It] is essential viewing for us all."
    National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia

Festival Participation

  • British Film Institute - 2013
    Best Film
    BFI Sight and Sound Poll
  • European Film Awards - 2013
    Best Documentary
  • Asia Pacific Screen Awards - 2013
    Best Documentary
  • National Society of Film Critics - 2013
    Best Documentary
  • Cinema Eye Honors - 2013
    Best Feature Film; Best Production
  • Berlinale Panorama - 2013
    Audience Award; Ecumenical Jury Prize
  • Danish Academy Awards - 2013
    Best Documentary
  • Sheffield Doc Fest - 2013
    Grand Prize; Audience Award
  • Burma Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival - 2013
    Aung San Suu Kyi Award for Best Film
  • Documenta Madrid - 2013
    Grand Prize; Audience Award
  • DocsBarcelona - 2013
    Grand Prize
  • Traverse City Film Festival - 2013
    Stanley Kubrick Award
  • Istanbul Independent Film Festival - 2013
    Critics Prize
  • Yamagata Film Festival - 2013
    Mayor's Prize
  • CPH:DOX - 2013
    Grand Prize

Distribution Company

  • Director's Statement

    The tradition of cinema is dominated by films about good versus evil, “good guys” fighting “bad guys”. But good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality, every act of evil in history has been committed by human beings like us. When we make the leap from “a human being who commits evil” to “an evil human being”, we denounce an entire life, a whole person. I think we take pleasure in denouncing people. Perhaps because, in doing so, in feeling entitled to make the denunciation, we reassure ourselves that we are different, that we are good. In The Act of KIlling, I ask you to see a part of yourself in Anwar, a man who has killed perhaps 1000 people. Empathizing with a killer does not mean we empathize any less with the victims. In fact, the contrary is true. Empathy is not a zero-sum game. Empathy is the beginning of love – and I think we can never have too much of it. The moment you identify, however fleetingly, with Anwar, you will feel, viscerally, that the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys—and, more troublingly, that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe. My film holds a dark mirror up to Anwar, and to contemporary Indonesia. It also holds a dark mirror up to all of us, for all of us rely on men like Anwar and his friends for our survival. The reality you see in The Act of Killing is not a distant, crazy world, where black is white and white is black. On the contrary, it is the dark underbelly of our reality: we all depend on the suffering of others to feed and clothe ourselves. Everything that touches my body, including the computer on which I type this letter, is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it. Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place where there has been political violence, where the perpetrators have won and are still in power, and where a terrifying past keeps people so afraid that the human cost of everything we buy is not included in the price tag. We, too, are perpetrators. I began this journey nearly a decade ago, filming with survivors of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide. We became close. They became my second family. I learned Indonesian. But every time we would film together, the military would stop us. It was frightening for the survivors, who were still subject to a regime of political apartheid that designated them as “unclean”, denying them and their children education, jobs, even the right to marry who they choose. One of the survivors suggested I film the perpetrators. “They will boast,” she explained. “Film their boasting, and viewers will see why we are so afraid.” For several years, I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across North Sumatra’s oil palm and rubber plantations, and up the chain of command to the city of Medan, and beyond to army generals in Jakarta. Anwar, the protagonist of The Act of Killing, was the 41st death squad leader I filmed. Without exception, the perpetrators were open, eager to tell me what they had done. Usually, they would insist I film them in the places where they had killed, and they would launch into spontaneous re-enactments of the killings. After showing me how they’d killed, they’d often lament that they had neglected to bring machetes to use as props, or friends to play victims. I knew their openness was a consequence of, indeed a performance of impunity. But why were they boasting? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves Perpetrators in film normally deny their atrocities (or else apologise for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them, they have been removed from power, and their actions condemned. Here, I was filming perpetrators of genocide who won, who built a regime of terror founded on the celebration of genocide, and who remain in power. They have not been forced to admit what they did was wrong. At first, I took their boasting at face value: they feel no remorse, they are proud of what they did, they have no conscience. I came to understand, however, that this first interpretation may have been too hasty, that the killers’ boasting may betray their awareness that what they did was wrong, and may be their desperate effort to escape that fact… If you or I had killed, and still had open to us the possibility of justifying it to ourselves, I am certain that most of us would. Otherwise, we would have to look in the mirror every morning and see a murderer. The men in The Act of Killing can still justify what they’ve done, because nobody has condemned them—they remain in power. And because they don’t believe their own justification, they become more strident, and justification slips into desperate celebration—not because they lack humanity, but rather because they know what they did was wrong. The celebration of mass murder may, then, be a sign of humanity. That’s probably the central paradox in The Act of Killing. The tragedy, however, is that the celebration of killing requires that you commit further evil. It requires that you oppress your victims, and it even requires that you kill again. Having corrupted yourself by killing one person, if you are now asked to kill another, for more-or-less the same reason, you cannot refuse, because if you refuse it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time. The Act of Killing asks hard questions about what it means to be a human being. What does it mean to have a past? How do we make our reality through storytelling? And how, as a crucial part of this, do we use storytelling to escape from our most bitter and indigestible truths. The Act of Killing has transformed the way Indonesians are talking about its past—and its present. In response to the film, the mainstream Indonesian media now publishes, for the first time in 47 years, serious investigative pieces about the genocide, and about the role of gangsters in politics. According to a member of Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, perpetrators no longer boast about crimes against humanity. The film is the most talked about work of culture in modern Indonesia. It has has arrived like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: everyone knew the king was naked, but no one dared say so. Everyone knew the country’s “democracy” was a corrupt charade built on fear, that any given politician might be a gangster or killer—but no one dared say so. But once it’s been shown so forcefully, so emotionally—and by the perpetrators themselves—there is no denying it, and no going back. The Act of Killing would not be possible without many anonymous Indonesians, including my Indonesian co-director, who risked their lives for eight years to bring you this film. All the while, they knew it would be too dangerous for them to publicly take credit for this work. They are the most brave, inspired, dedicated, and loving people I have ever known. They have been my best friends and my family over these eight years. They supported me throughout the dark journey, and brightened the path with laughter. And above all, we owe our deepest gratitude to the families of the victims, the survivors who first told me their stories, and who inspired me to make this film. Finally, this letter would not be complete if I didn’t say a word about the giant goldfish. A former seafood restaurant that went bust, the fish is perched on the precipice of the most important event in human history. I mean that quite literally, for it sits above Lake Toba, a crater lake formed when a super volcano exploded some 50-75,000 years ago. The explosion plunged the earth into a volcanic winter so severe that humanity was wiped out, our population reduced from many millions to a single band of one thousand people, from which geneticists have determined that all modern human beings have evolved. This is called the Toba bottleneck. So when Anwar and his friends are dancing at the fish, under a gathering thunderstorm, it is a danse macabre at the edge of the abyss. It is a great privilege to share with you a decade of my work, this documentary of the imagination, this fever dream, The Act of Killing.

  • Director's Notes
    Beginning In February 2004, I filmed a former death squad leader demonstrate how, in less than three months, he and his fellow killers slaughtered 10,500 alleged ‘communists’ in a single clearing by a river in North Sumatra. When he was finished with his explanation, he asked my sound recordist to take some snapshots of us together by the riverbank. He smiled broadly, gave a thumbs up in one photo, a victory sign in the next. Two months later, other photos, this time of American soldiers smiling and giving the thumbs up while torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, appeared in the news (Errol Morris later revealed these photographs to be more complex than they at first appear). The most unsettling thing about these images is not the violence they document, but rather what they suggest to us about how their participants wanted, in that moment, to be seen. And how they thought, in that moment, they would want to remember themselves. Moreover, performing, acting, posing appear to be part of the procedures of humiliation. These photographs betray not so much the physical situation of abuse, but rather forensic evidence of the imagination involved in persecution. And they were very much in my mind when, one year later, I met Anwar Congo and the other leaders of Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement.
    Far Away or Close to Home?
    The differences between the situations I was filming in Indonesia and other situations of mass persecution may at first seem obvious. Unlike in Rwanda, South Africa or Germany, in Indonesia there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, no memorials for victims. Instead, ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honoured as national heroes by a docile (and often terrified) public. But is this situation really so exceptional? At home (in the USA), the champions of torture, disappearance, and indefinite detention were in the highest positions of political power and, at the same time, busily tending to their legacy as the heroic saviours of western civilisation. That such narratives would be believed (despite all evidence to the contrary) suggests a failure of our collective imagination, while simultaneously revealing the power of storytelling in shaping how we see. And that Anwar and his friends so admired American movies, American music, American clothing – all of this made the echoes more difficult to ignore, transforming what I was filming into a nightmarish allegory.
    Filming with Survivors When I began developing The Act of Killing in 2005, I had already been filming for three years with survivors of the 1965-66 massacres. I had lived for a year in a village of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan. I had become very close to several of the families there. During that time, Christine Cynn and I collaborated with a fledgling plantation workers’ union to make The Globalization Tapes, and began production on a forthcoming film about a family of survivors that begins to confront (with tremendous dignity and patience) the killers who murdered their son. Our efforts to record the survivors’ experiences – never before expressed publicly – took place in the shadow of their torturers, as well as the executioners who murdered their relatives – men who, like Anwar Congo, would boast about what they did. Ironically, we faced the greatest danger when filming survivors. We’d encounter obstacle after obstacle. For instance, when we tried to film a scene in which former political prisoners rehearsed a Javanese ballad about their time in the concentration camps (describing how they provided forced labour for a British-owned plantation, and how every night some of their friends would be handed over to the death squads to be killed), we were interrupted by police seeking to arrest us. At other times, the management of London-Sumatra plantations interrupted the film’s shooting, “honouring” us by “inviting” us to a meeting at plantation headquarters. Or the village mayor would arrive with a military escort to tell us we didn’t have permission to film. Or an “NGO” focused on “rehabilitation for the victims of the 1965-66 killings” would turn up and declare that “this is our turf – the villagers here have paid us to protect them.” (When we later visited the NGO’s office, we discovered that the head of the NGO was none other than the area’s leading killer – and a friend of Anwar Congo’s – and the NGO’s staff seemed to be military intelligence officers.) Not only did we feel unsafe filming the survivors, we worried for their safety. And the survivors couldn’t answer the question of how the killings were perpetrated.
    Boastful Killers
    But the killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank. Military officers would even task soldiers with keeping curious onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn’t be disturbed. This bizarre situation was my second starting point for making The Act of Killing. And the question in mind was this: what does it mean to live in, and be governed by, a regime whose power rests on the performance of mass murder and its boastful public recounting, even as it intimidates survivors into silence. Again, there seemed to be a profound failure of the imagination.
    Within Indonesia more generally, such openness about the killings might be exceptional. But in North Sumatra, it is standard operating procedure. For there, the army recruited its death squads from the ranks of gangsters. Gangsters’ power derives from being feared, and so the thugs ruling North Sumatra have trumpeted their role in the genocide ever since, framing it as heroic struggle, while all the time taking care to include grisly details that inspire a constant and undiminished disquiet, unease, even terror of possible recurrence. (In East Java and in Bali, the death squads were recruited from religious groups, while in Central Java and elsewhere they were members of the Indonesian special forces. Unlike gangsters, those groups’ power is not necessarily based on their being feared.) In the gangsters’ role as the political bosses of North Sumatra (a province of 14 million people) they have continued to celebrate themselves as heroes, reminding the public of their role in the massacres, while continuing to threaten the survivors – and they have done so even as governors, senators, members of parliament, and, in the case of one prominent veteran of the 1965-66 genocide, as the perversely named, “Deputy Minister of Law and Human Rights”.
    Seizing the Moment
    I understood that gangsters don’t hold quite the same monopoly on power in many other regions of Indonesia – including Jakarta. So in one sense the circumstances in North Sumatra differ from elsewhere. Perpetrators in other regions haven’t been so open, not because they fear prosecution (they don’t), but because they don’t need to use stories about the genocide as a tool of criminal and political intimidation. And yet, just as the situations I encountered in Sumatra had parallels in the United States, so too did they embody a logic of total impunity that defines Indonesia as a whole, and probably any other regime built on terror and its threatening recount. In this, I saw an opportunity: if the perpetrators in North Sumatra were given the means to dramatize their memories of genocide in whatever ways they wished, they would probably seek to glorify it further, to transform it into a “beautiful family movie” (as Anwar puts it) whose kaleidoscopic use of genres would reflect their multiple, conflicting emotions about their “glorious past”. I anticipated that the outcomes from this process would serve as an exposé, even to Indonesians themselves, of just how deep the impunity and lack of resolution in their country remains. Moreover, Anwar and his friends had helped to build a regime that terrorised their victims into treating them as heroes, and I realized that the filmmaking process would answer many questions about the nature of such a regime – questions that may seem secondary to what they did, but in fact are inseparable from it. For instance, how do Anwar and his friends really think people see them? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? How do they see their victims? How does the way they think they will be seen by others reveal what they imagine about the world they live in, the culture they have built? The filmmaking method we used in The Act of Killing was developed to answer these questions. It is best seen as an investigative technique, refined to help us understand not only what we see, but also how we see, and how we imagine. These are questions of critical importance to understanding the imaginative procedures by which human beings persecute each other, and how we then go on to build (and live in) societies founded on systemic and enduring violence.
    Anwar’s Reactions
    If my goal in initiating the project was to find answers to these questions, and if Anwar’s declared intent was to glorify his past actions, there is no way that he could not, in part, be disappointed by the final film. And yet, a crucial component of the filmmaking process involved screening the footage back to Anwar and his friends along the way. Inevitably, we screened the most painful scenes. They know what is in the film; indeed, they openly debate the consequences of the film, inside the film. And seeing these scenes only made Anwar more interested in the work, which is how I gradually realised that he was on a parallel, more personal journey through the filmmaking process, one in which he sought to come to terms with the meaning of what he had done. In that sense, too, Anwar is the bravest and most honest character in The Act of Killing. He may or may not ‘like’ the result, but I have tried to honour his courage and his openness by presenting him as honestly, and with as much compassion, as I could, while still deferring to the unspeakable acts that he committed. There is no easy resolution to The Act of Killing. The murder of one million people is inevitably fraught with complexity and contradiction. In short, it leaves behind a terrible mess. All the more so when the killers have remained in power, when there has been no attempt at justice, and when the story has hitherto only been used to intimidate the survivors. Seeking to understand such a situation, intervening in it, documenting it – this, too, can only be equally tangled, unkempt.
    The Struggle Continues
    I have developed a filmmaking method with which I have tried to understand why extreme violence, that we hope would be unimaginable, is not only the exact opposite, but also routinely performed. I have tried to understand the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles. Some viewers may desire a formal closure by the end of the film, a successful struggle for justice that results in changes in the balance of power, human rights tribunals, reparations and official apologies. One film alone cannot create these changes, but this desire has of course been our inspiration as well, as we attempt to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not, finally, a story only about Indonesia. It is a story about us all.
  • Co-Director's Statement
    By Anonymous
    I was one of thousands of students who stood face to face with riot police in 1998, urging the New Order military dictatorship to go. I was not one of the student leaders who delivered heated speeches to the crowd; I was only a supporter, who felt that this moment might be historically important. After more than three decades in power, General Suharto had finally stepped down. Since then, there have been some changes. The constitution has been amended four times. The press has become relatively freer. The President and Governors are elected by the people. There are no limitations on the numbers of political parties, although it remains illegal for any of them to declare a Marxist affiliation. However, working with grassroots communities, trying to create a fairer distribution of natural resources, for example, I repeatedly hit a dead end. Everywhere, corruption is still rampant. Munir, a human rights activist, was murdered by leading officials in the Indonesian intelligence services while on a flight to Holland, where he was to pursue a graduate degree — and there has been no effort to prosecute those responsible. Violence is still often used as the primary language of politics. The buying of votes has transformed ‘democracy’ into, at best, a formal, almost stage-set procedure… In other words, nothing has really changed since the day General Suharto seized power — even now, 14 years after he gave it up. The façade of Indonesian politics might have altered since the 1998 political reforms but, behind it, the old machinery still works in exactly the same way. In 2004, I met Joshua and helped him begin his filmic exploration of the 1965-66 genocide in North Sumatra. Initially, I came to help for a month, not realizing that it would mark the beginning of an eight year collaboration. Making this film has become a personal journey for me, in seeking to discover why this social and political stasis remains. Through the imaginations and recollections of the mass murderers featured – men who supported, even created this corrupt structure – I understand, with particular clarity, how one of the devices of the old regime is still working so efficiently. It is the ‘projector’ that keeps playing, on an endless loop, a fiction film inside every Indonesian’s head. People like Anwar and his friends are the projectionists, showing a subtle but unavoidable form of propaganda, which creates the kind of fantasy through which Indonesians may live their lives and make sense of the world around them; a fantasy that makes them desensitized to the violence and impunity that define our society.
    This is the true legacy of the dictatorship: the erasure of our ability to imagine anything other. I worked with Joshua to make The Act of Killing in order to help myself, other Indonesians, and human beings living in similar societies around the world, to understand the importance of questioning what we see, and how we imagine. How else are we to envision our world in a different way? I must remain anonymous, for now, because the political conditions in Indonesia make it too dangerous for me to do otherwise.
  • Co-Directors Statement
    By  Co-Director Christine Cynn
    Humans love make believe. We love it so much we can make ourselves believe what is obviously false, even destructive. We love make believe so much that we find ourselves making belief for people who love us not at all. Many of us also find ourselves acting in ways dissociated from what (we believe) we believe. In other words, we are rarely whom we imagine ourselves to be. This is as true of bankers and film directors as it is true of death squad leaders. The Act of Killing hopefully reveals more than another terrifying example of human brutality and injustice. My hope was that the film might lead us to question the role of our imaginations in perpetuating a delusional social cycle, driven by struggles for power, and spiked with performances of terror and mass murder that are invariably followed by false historical narratives. I do not consider myself an optimist, but I am convinced that not all ‘make believe’ need be delusional. Human imagination is the key to empathy, which leads us to acts of compassion. Imagination is also the foundation of curiosity, which leads us to acts of discovery. This, in turn, changes what is possible. Human imagination might also lead us to break the cycles of self-deception and their devastating consequences if, and only if, we find the humility to admit responsibility for them.
  • Historical Context
    Edited from observations on the massacres, their aftermath and implications, by Historian John Roosa. Many thanks to him for providing this summary. Additional opening and closing notes by Joshua Oppenheimer.
    In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, founder of the non-aligned movement, and leader of the national revolution against Dutch colonialism, was deposed and replaced by right-wing General Suharto. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which had been a core constituency in the struggle against Dutch colonialism, and which had firmly supported President Sukarno (who was not a communist), was immediately banned. On the eve of the coup, the PKI was the largest communist party in the world, outside of a communist country. It was officially committed to winning power through elections, and its affiliates included all of Indonesia’s trade unions and cooperatives for landless farmers. Its major campaign issues included land reform, as well as nationalizing foreign-owned mining, oil, and plantation companies. In this, they sought to mobilize Indonesia’s vast natural resources for the benefit of the Indonesian people, who, in the aftermath of three hundred years of colonial exploitation, were, on the whole, extremely poor. After the 1965 military coup, anybody opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist. This included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese, as well as anybody who struggled for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonialism. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million of these “communists” were murdered. In America, the massacre was regarded as a major “victory over communism”, and generally celebrated as good news. Time magazine reported “the West’s best news for years in Asia”, while The New York Times ran the headline, “A Gleam of Light in Asia”, and praised Washington for keeping its hand in the killings well hidden.
    (The scapegoating of the ethnic Chinese, who had come to Indonesia in the 18th and 19th centuries, was done at the incitement of the US intelligence services, which sought to drive a wedge between the new Indonesian regime and the People’s Republic of China. The slaughter of village-level members of the PKI and its affiliate unions and cooperatives was also encouraged by the US, who was worried that without a “scorched earth” approach, the new Indonesian regime might eventually accommodate the PKI base.) In many regions of Indonesia, the army recruited civilians to carry out the killings. They were organized into paramilitary groups, given basic training (and significant military back up). In the province of North Sumatra and elsewhere, the paramilitaries were recruited largely from the ranks of gangsters, or preman. Ever since the massacres, the Indonesian government has celebrated the “extermination of the communists” as a patriotic struggle, and celebrated the paramilitaries and gangsters as its heroes, rewarding them with power and privilege. These men and their protégés have occupied key positions of power – and persecuted their opponents – ever since. The pretext for the 1965-66 genocide was the assassination of six army generals on the night of 1 October 1965. (above written by J.O.) 1.10.1965: The Thirtieth of September Movement (Gerakan 30 September, or G30S), made up of disaffected junior Indonesian Armed Forces Officers, assassinated six Indonesian Army Generals in an abortive coup and dumped their bodies down a well south of the city. At the same time, the Movement’s troops took over the national radio station and announced that they intended to protect President Sukarno from a cabal of right-wing army generals plotting a seizure of power. The Movement was defeated before most Indonesians knew it existed. The senior surviving army commander, Major General Suharto, launched a quick counter-attack and drove the Movement’s troops from Jakarta within one day.
    Suharto accused the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) of masterminding the Movement and then orchestrated an extermination of persons affiliated with the party. Suharto’s military rounded up over a million and a half people, accusing all of them of being involved in the Movement. In one of the worst bloodbaths of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of individuals were massacred by the army and its affiliated militias, largely in Central Java, East Java, Bali, and North Sumatra from late 1965 to mid-1966. In a climate of national emergency, Suharto gradually usurped President Sukarno’s authority and established himself as the de facto president (with the power to dismiss and appoint ministers) by March 1966. The massacres were out of all proportion to their ostensible cause. The Movement was a small-scale conspiratorial action organized by a handful of people. In total, it killed twelve people. Suharto exaggerated its magnitude until it assumed the shape of an ongoing, nation-wide conspiracy to commit mass murder. All the millions of people associated with the PKI, even illiterate peasants in remote villages, were presented as murderers collectively responsible for the Movement. Indonesian government and military officials, to the very end of the Suharto regime in 1998, invoked the specter of the PKI in response to any disturbance or sign of dissent. The key phrase in the regime’s argument was “the latent danger of communism.” The unfinished eradication of the PKI was, in a very real sense, the raison d’être of the Suharto regime. The original legal act under which the regime ruled Indonesia for over thirty years was Sukarno’s presidential order of 3rd October 1965, authorizing Suharto to “restore order.” That was an emergency order. But for Suharto, the emergency never ended. In constructing a legitimating ideology for his dictatorship, Suharto presented himself as the saviour of the nation for having defeated the Movement. His regime incessantly drilled the event into the minds of the populace by every method of state propaganda: textbooks, monuments, street names, films, museums, commemorative rituals and national holidays. The Suharto regime justified its existence by placing the Movement at the centre of its historical narrative and depicting the PKI as ineffably evil. Under Suharto, anti-communism became the state religion, complete with sacred sites, rituals, and dates. It is remarkable that the anti-PKI violence, as such a large-scale event, has been so badly misunderstood. No doubt, the fact that both military personnel and civilians committed the killings has blurred the issue of responsibility. Nonetheless, from what little is already known, it is clear that the military bears the largest share of responsibility and that the killings represented bureaucratic, planned violence more than popular, spontaneous violence. The Suharto clique of officers, by inventing false stories about the Movement and strictly controlling the media, created a sense among civilians that the PKI was on the warpath. If there had not been this deliberate provocation from the military, the populace would not have believed the PKI was a mortal threat since the party was passive in the aftermath of the Movement. (The military worked hard to whip up popular anger against the PKI from early October 1965 onwards; and the US Government actively encouraged the Indonesian military to pursue rank and file communists). It prodded civilian militias into acting, gave them assurances of impunity, and arranged logistical support.
    Contrary to common belief, frenzied violence by villagers was virtually unheard of. Suharto’s army usually opted for mysterious disappearances rather than exemplary public executions. The army and its militias tended to commit its large-scale massacres in secret: they took captives out of prison at night, trucked them to remote locations, executed them, and then buried the corpses in unmarked mass graves or threw them into rivers. The tragedy of modern Indonesian history lies not just in the army-organized mass killings of 1965-66 but also in the rise to power of the killers, of persons who viewed massacres and psychological warfare operations as legitimate and normal modes of governance. A regime that legitimated itself by pointing to a mass grave at the site of the well, vowing “never again,” left countless mass graves from one end of the country to the other, from Aceh on the western edge to Papua on the eastern edge. The occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 similarly left tens, if not hundreds, of thousands dead, many anonymously buried. Each mass grave in the archipelago marks an arbitrary, unavowed, secretive exercise of state power. The obsession with a relatively minor event (the Movement) and the erasure of a world-historical event (the mass killings of 1965-66) has blocked empathy for the victims, such as the relatives of those men and women who disappeared. While a monument stands next to the well in which the Movement’s troops dumped the bodies of the six army generals on October 1, 1965, there is no monument to be found at the mass graves that hold the hundreds of thousands of persons killed in the name of suppressing the Movement. (above written by J.R.)
    Focus on who killed the army generals on 30th September 1965 has functioned as a fetish, displacing all attention from the murder of over one million alleged communists in the months that followed. Suharto’s regime produced endless propaganda about the brutal communists behind the killing of the generals, and still today most discussion of the genocide has been displaced by this focus. And this is true even in most English- language sources. To me, participating in the debate around “who killed the generals” feels grotesque, which is why it does not feature in The Act of Killing. The Rwandan genocide was triggered when Rwandan presidentJuvénal Habyarimana (a Hutu) died after his aeroplane was shot down on its approach to Kigali. To focus on who shot down the plane (was it Tutsi extremists? was it Hutu extremists acting as provocateurs?) rather than the murder of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates over the next 100 days would be unconscionable. Similarly, who started the Reichstag fire is irrelevant to an understanding of the Holocaust. Whether or not the disgruntled army officers behind the killing of the six generals had the support of the head of the PKI is much more than beside the point: it plays, as John Roosa points out above, the pernicious role of deflecting attention from a mass murder of world-historical importance. Imagine if, in Rwanda, the fundamental question about what happened in 1994 was “who shot down the president’s plane?” This would only be thinkable if the killers remained in power… (above written by J.O.)
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