For the second consecutive issue of the ARC Newsletter, I am reviewing an important, superlative work devoted to human rights without any content directly relating to genital cutting. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 film, The Act of Killing, co-directed by Christine Cinn and an Indonesian who understandably remains anonymous, won no fewer than a stupendous seven documentary filmmaking awards.
As with Charli Carpenter’s outstanding book reviewed in the last issue (Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond), this motion picture simply must be seen by anyone with an interest in human rights, law, or justice.
What causes someone to knowingly, deliberately violate the right to life and security of another human being? Is it possible to do so and remain an intelligent, thinking person? Evidently some people find it possible to so compartmentalize their thinking that they can even take pleasure in recounting their atrocities and their excellence (if such a word can even be so used) at committing them. Even more shockingly, it seems that a large percentage of the country’s citizens propped up these torturers’ views of themselves.
The “star” of the film is gangster Anwar Congo, one of Suharto’s worst human rights violators and even today viewed as a hero by most Indonesian residents. In 1965, after Suharto overthrew the democratically elected president Sukarno, an ostensibly anti-Communist purge was conducted that caused the deaths of an astonishing total of over half million people. Congo was one of the main beneficiaries, as he made the career leap from selling black market movie theatre tickets to master-minding and leading what became a notorious North Sumatran death squad. Congo personally killed at least 1,000 people, usually by strangling them with wire using a method he breezily demonstrates in the film. After he re-enacts this killing method, he seems distraught, saying, “I can’t do that again.”
Today, as Oppenheimer graphically shows us, Congo is revered as a founding father of the right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila and its youth-oriented branch Pancasila Youth, which both trace their lineage through the death squads. Pemuda Pancasila is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to clearing out peasants for land developers and genocide.
Invited by Oppenheimer, Congo and his friends recount and re-enact their experiences and some of their killings for the cameras. The scenes are produced in the styles of their favorite film genres: gangster, western, and musical. As the film’s publicity says, “they re-create their real-life killings as they dance their way through musical sequences, twist arms in film noir gangster scenes, and gallop across prairies as Western cowboys.” While some of Congo’s friends realize that the killings were wrong, others worry about the effects on their public image of the story being publicized.
After Congo plays the role of a victim of his own human rights violations, he finds himself unable to continue. He says that he feels what his victims have felt. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, points out that it was much worse for the victims, because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Congo was only acting. Congo then expresses doubts over whether he has sinned or not, tearfully saying he does not want the memories of what he did to come back to him. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, and gags repeatedly.
Congo’s comments are illuminating. He says: “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse. For example, if I’m asked to kill someone, if the compensation is right, (raising hands in air) then of course I’ll do it, and from one perspective it’s not wrong. That’s the perspective we must make ourselves believe.”
Another participant in the crimes tells smilingly of finding in a barrel the body of his own stepfather, who raised him. “We buried him like a goat next to the main road.” He laughingly continues, “Then all the Communist families were exiled. That’s why I’ve never been to school. That’s why I had to teach myself to read and write. I promise I’m not criticizing what we’re dong. It’s only input for the film.”
Chillingly, an employee in the office where many of the torture incidents occurs claims that he was never aware of what happened. Surprised, Congo replies, “Even the neighbors knew! How could he not know!”
Congo’s position on war crimes is illuminating: “War crimes are defined by the winners. So I can make my own definitions. I’m not bound by the Geneva Conventions..”
Congo appears on a modern day talk show with wildly applauding Pancasila Youth members in the audience. According to the smiling talk show host, Congo taught his country “a less sadistic way of killing communists and he avoided excessive violence.” The vice president of the country says at a Pancasila Youth meeting, “Beating people up is sometimes needed,” drawing cheers from the audience.
Congo has an answer as to why the children of the victims of his crimes have not taken revenge on him for their losses: “It’s not that they don’t want to take revenge. They can’t because we’d exterminate them all.”
Congo calls his grandkids to the television set to watch replays of some of the scenes he has filmed. “Come watch this scene where Grandpa is tortured and killed.” Oppenheimer asks, “But this is too violent. You sure?” Congo: “No problem. They’ll be fine.”
“Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks as he’s watching it.
“I can feel what the people I tortured feel. Because my dignity here has been destroyed, and then fear comes.” Starting to weep uncontrollably, he adds, “I did this to so many people. Is it all coming back to me? I really don’t want it to.”
Extortion of money from Chinese merchants is shown. Back in the day, merchants were refused to pay were ruthlessly murdered by Congo and his henchmen. Congo is clearly proud to show off how things were done.
Toward the end of the film, Congo makes an illuminating comparison: “Why do people watch films about the Nazis?” His answer: “To see power and sadism.” Congo repeatedly mentions being troubled by nightmares yet never draws the ever so obvious connection to his own actions.
If Congo never felt remorse, was never plagued by doubt, this would still be a powerhouse of a film. The fact that Oppenheimer and his co-directors were able to get this sort of honesty from their subjects is astonishing, and doubtless they risked their own lives to make the movie. The most impressive fact of all is that Congo is a human being, intermittently able to weep for his victims, to empathize for them, and to recognize the horrible nature of his actions. Yet at the end of the day, he laughs, excuses himself with his own professionalism and a recitation of the asserted political conditions that ostensibly forced his behavior. And in his view his actions have been sanitized, even justified. This film simply must be seen. It is a breathtaking achievement.