I don’t think it is an understatement to say Joseph Oppenheimer’s film, ‘The Act of Killing’, is one of the most important works of art and film in the modern era, dating back to the start of the 20th century. It captures the dirty truth of a time period, of the shocking powers of violence and cruelty inherent in man and supported by the modern sociopolitical systems we have been creating and evolving over a hundred years. It asks us not to imagine what it would look like if the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge had won and were able to shape the history of a country in their own image. It shows us this reality, here and now, existing in Indonesia. It hints at the role of Western countries in creating this dark truth. And even harder to grapple with, it draws parallels between what has happened and continues to happen in Indonesia and our own past and present as a nation, forcing us to look in the mirror if we are brave enough to hear the call.
What is the nature of good and evil? Is any individual inherently good? Evil? Or does the capacity for both of these qualities exists within most of us? The fact that genocides have been repeated in many countries all over the world with vastly different cultures and countries, and that the killing themselves were carried out by ordinary people, suggest a frightening answer most of would never want to admit to ourselves. The famous Milgram experiment posits similar outcomes. The motivations for acts of kindness or cruelty are complex and subject to a multitude of outside factors. The systems of government and society surrounding us play a huge role. The communities and families in which we were raised. The education systems in which we were taught. So is it fair to say that any individual who engages in acts of kindness or cruelty is necessarily good or evil?
Anwar Congo is the focus of ‘The Act of Killing’. He was a small time ‘movie theater gangster’ in the 60s in Sumatra. When the military coup happened in 1965 and an ethnic/political cleansing was encouraged in its wake, he got swept up in the wave and was personally responsible for around 1,000 deaths out of the 1 million reported. Today, Anwar enjoys the life of a retired gangster, which in Indonesia they term a ‘free man’. Such is his comfort and freedom that he agreed to not only give an honest accounting of his involvement in the genocide, but to recreate and film his killings for a movie in hopes of glorifying this extermination of communists, a great feat of heroism in the country’s professed history. He and his buddies proceed to dream up, plan, and shoot ever wilder, surreal scenes of technicolor violence paying homage to the roots of their influence as gangsters and killers, Hollywood films of the 60s.
During this process of recreation, Anwar and the other killers are left to their own devices on how, what, and where to shoot. Oppenheimer is less interested in the outcomes of these recreations than observing the process as a fly on the wall. In the way the major players talk about the scenes, recounting their memories of killing and torture, it is hard to glean any remorse. To this day, the official line of the government and the largest paramilitary organization in the country is that the killings were justified, and that they would happily exterminate the communists again if the children of victims tried to rise up and make their voices heard. So not only is there no reason for these men to express remorse, but to do so might actually put them in a precarious situation with the government. We hear one man boast of how much he loved raping every woman he came across, how he loved beautiful 14 year olds the best. We hear another exclaim how he walked down the street in Jakarta one day stabbing every ethnic Chinese he passed, and because his girlfriend was Chinese, he killed her dad that day as well. They tell these stories with laughter and pride.
The only person in this group, aside from our star Anwar, to express discomfort with the whole process was a former killer now living overseas, Adi, whose only objection was that they shouldn’t be admitting that they lied about the communists being cruel and allow the historical record to show that they, in fact, were the cruel ones. This happens during filming of an interrogation scene. A neighbor of Anwar who hangs around and is friendly with these gangsters gets up the nerve to share a secret story. His step dad raised him from when he was a baby. His step dad was also ethnic Chinese. One night men came to the door, kidnapped his step dad, and they found him the next day dead under a barrel. He tells this story while laughing in a grotesque manner, and pleads that he is not criticizing but only sharing a story for accuracy in the film. No one reacts to this story. They proceed then to film a scene where this same man is interrogated, tortured, and killed, forcing him to imagine and relive the fate of his step dad. During the scene he sobs so hard snot shoots out of his nose and down onto his mouth and chin, hanging in long streams from his face as he begs for mercy. This is no act. This is the release of emotions held inside for decades.
A government, a country, says killings are justified, that any means necessary are acceptable in protecting the interests of the country, including hiding certain realities. The people at every level of involvement must tow the line and present an image that upholds this belief. Does that make the killings justified? It is easy from the outside, perhaps, in such cases as this one in Indonesia, or the ones in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Germany, to say of course it does not justify the killings. But what about from the inside? Would it be easy within Indonesia to see through the propaganda and see that the killings were unjustified? Adi defiantly states at one point, ‘ The winners get to define the war crimes’. That is his view, and it holds within Indonesia, but from the outside we say, hold on, no no, we judge what happened as unjust. But what happens when the country in question is one of the largest and most powerful in the world, able to exert pressure over the entire international community? Are people from the outside going to stand up to injustices committed by that country? Or will they tow the same line being put out by the ‘winner’? It is uncomfortable to use such an opportunity as this film presents to turn the lens back onto ourselves. What killings have been committed in the name of our own sense of morality that may rightfully be deemed unjustified? Who has been held to account for those war crimes? Why do we rush to harsh judgement of those who commit war crimes elsewhere while not taking the time to judge ourselves, our leaders, our killers the same? Because we are the ‘winners’ of the world, we know best, we define the terms.
I know this is a painful topic to broach, one that most of us would rather avoid or pretend does not exist. But what if, for a moment, I change the focus to the interesting case of China. China is an interesting case, because they have done, and continue to do many things that we, in the international community, can agree constitute egregious human rights violations. However, they have steadily become an unstoppable economic power in the world that may soon eclipse the vaunted West. That puts them in the unique position today where the outrage over their human rights violations has become less and less, while support and encouragement for their stature as a world power has taken precedence. As they too become ‘winners’ of the world, they get to define the terms. What should by all rights be recorded in history as a terrible genocide of Tibetan people and an illegal occupation, has increasingly been accepted and forgotten to most as no government dares to cross China by calling a spade a spade, and instead accepts their claim of ownership to this land, and in doing so tacitly approves of their rewrite of history. Practices and conditions that would not be tolerated in any major Western country run rampant in China, and we turn a blind because of the benefit we obtain from their ‘winning’ economic practices. Only the future will tell how the modern history of China gets recorded. Unfortunately, we have a sad example with the Native Americans in our own backyard.
But we needn’t look all the way back to the Native Americans to question our own moral certitude and the validity of our unchecked unilateral actions in the world. The example of China clearly shows the uncomfortable dissonance created by such a fast rise in economic stature and the easy exchange of information in a digital, global world. But we have been a world power far longer, and we are on the inside. What do we ignore? What do we miss? Is Guantanamo justified? Are drone strikes justified? The innocent casualties that result? Our invisible hand in numerous atrocities like the one in Indonesia? Our invasions of Iraq and Vietnam? Environmental destruction? Chemical poisoning of citizens through toxic dumping? Financial collapse? Obesity? What else is out there of which we are unaware? It is endless how far down this particular rabbit hole we could descend in looking for our culpability in causing suffering by the systems we have created, supported, and nurtured. It does not take a dictatorship or communism to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens as cruel acts are carried out by individuals in the name or freedom, prosperity, and evolution at the direction of the government and the culture.
So where do we draw the line? Who is actually responsible? Our ‘hero’ in ‘The Act of Killing’, Anwar, has his own personal moment of reckoning during filming. He hints at the beginning of being haunted in his dreams by his crimes, of hiding from the guilt and pain with drugs and alcohol and partying. In one scene, he plays the role of communist victim himself, perhaps to punish himself and feel the pain he inflicted upon countless others. As his friend and fellow killer pretends to strangle him with wire after a simulated beating and interrogation, we watch Anwar become overwhelmed, nearly pass out, as if he left his body for a few moments. Later, he tells Joseph he felt their pain in that moment. Joseph points out that it was much worse for them because it was real. Anwar insists, ‘but I felt it Joseph, it all came back to me,’ as he breaks down and cries, pleading for it not to come back to him. This scene is followed by Anwar retching and dry heaving, on the roof where he killed so many people, for an uncomfortable length of time. We can see he is not faking or playing it up for the camera. This man has finally allowed himself to be overcome by the gravity of what he did, the cruelty for which he was responsible. Could a killer possibly ever be a sympathetic figure?
Anwar did wrong, committed horrible atrocities, and lived a privileged life because of it. He did it at the direction of his government, alongside many cohorts, with many rewards reaped. He has been tormented internally for years, hiding all of this emotion, and pretending to be something he is not. He has loved his family and done the best he could in the wake of a system set up to scapegoat him if ever the need came. We can see all of this through his remorse and pain. Does he deserve our sympathy? Or is what he did too ‘evil’ to ever merit sympathy? Is it impossible to imagine ourselves, or people we know, doing the same thing if put in the unfortunate situation Anwar was put in? Of course we want to say yes, that is impossible to imagine. But is it? Is it really?
If we take a moment to explore the possibility of Anwar as a sympathetic figure, a stooge of a government and a culture, a victim of unlucky circumstance, with a basically good heart who committed horrible acts, where does that leave us? None of the other men even hint at remorse for their actions. Does that mean they would not merit sympathy? Just because we can’t see the pain and torment inside, because they refuse to show it, does that mean it is absent? I do not claim to have answers to any of these questions. But I do know we are all too happy to lay blame and punishment at the feet of individuals, but loathe to assign responsibility to the systems that created and enabled them, systems in which we freely participate and benefit from. In similar circumstances, there will always be a discouraging number of individuals who will feel pressured to participate in such acts of violence. It has happened repeatedly the whole world over. Could they all possibly be evil? If given the chance, how many of the slaughtered victims would have participated if the tables were turned and they were not the minority? How many people would participate in such acts within our own country if forced? I know I keep going back to this, that these things are incredibly uncomfortable to explore. But if we don’t explore them, what are we allowing? Where is our responsibility in this whole moral universe? I overheard a fellow audience member comment on the way out, “I’m glad I’m from the United States *laughs*!” I think her discomfort with what she just witnessed caused her to miss the larger point. Does being from the United States absolve us of responsibility?
There is a stunning scene near the end of the film, shot in vivid color, of Anwar and his best mate Herman standing with arms spread wide in praise and victory in front of a towering waterfall. They are surrounded at a distance by gorgeous women dancing in bold pink strapless dresses, stark against the lush green of the mountainside. The camera focuses on two executed communists with wire around their neck standing next to Anwar. They remove the wire from their necks, present Anwar and Herman with medals, shake hands, and say “Thank you for executing us and sending us to Heaven.” This is the big climax out of the minds of Anwar, Herman, and the rest of their killing buddies to their movie. Redemption through the gracious acceptance of their executed victims. This is the truth they are ready to present to a nation and beyond of their deeds in the name of strength and prosperity for Indonesia. But what other ending could their movie have if its aim is to tow the line, to promote the propaganda of the government and reinforce the history everyone is forced to believe in. Anwar sits and watches this scene in his home alone with pride. “I didn’t think I could make something so beautiful Joshua.”