By John Stiller
If Nazi Germany had won World War II, then German society would probably resemble contemporary Indonesia. It’s country whose new order was founded in a bloody nightmare, and even though most of the older generation knows it, they also know to keep their mouth shut. The young grow up ignorant of how their country was formed.
However, Nazi Germany was defeated, and the Germans have somewhat attempted to atone for their horrible crimes. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany, and the German government provided financial support to Israel after its founding. It’s an incredibly weak gesture when one considers what the Germans did to Europe and beyond during WWII, but there is at least some admission of guilt.
The massacre that occurred in Indonesia for the most part from 1965-1966 is a topic that is taboo in Indonesia (as I imagine the Holocaust would be in Germany if Hitler had succeeded.) Those responsible for what happened live comfortably in Indonesia, never having to worry about imprisonment or atonement for the brutal violence that killed an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people (some estimates put the death toll even higher). Why were they killed? Because they were Communists, or just “to the left” of the political spectrum.
Notable massacres/genocides since the end of WWII that most people know about are Pol Pot’s murder of millions of his people in Cambodia, the Maoist purges in China that occurred throughout his time in power, the carnage that took place in Rwanda in 1994, and the wide-spread ethnic cleansing that tore the Balkans apart throughout the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But does anyone remember what happened in Indonesia?
Let’s start with our own ignorance of the situation. Mainly my own. I thought I had a decent handle on world geography, but I still had to run Indonesia through Google maps to find out exactly where it is. I had assumed it was a rather small, but was surprised to find it was the fourth-biggest country in the world by population. And I was also surprised that Indonesia is a giant chain of islands in the South Pacific.
So much for my own worldliness.
It goes without saying that if I couldn’t even find Indonesia on a map, I certainly didn’t know anything about its history. I didn’t know that it had fought a war of independence against the Dutch from 1945 to 1949. I certainly didn’t know that during the Cold War hysteria whipped up by the competing interests of the Soviet Union and the United States, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Indonesia to purge itself of any attempt at a socialist type of government.
Quickly, here’s the background: Indonesia after it achieved independence from the Dutch was held together loosely by the rule of President Sukarno, a left-leaning nationalist. He came into increasing conflict with the Indonesian army, which was led by staunch anti-communists. As the appeal of communism spread throughout the country (the Indonesia Communist party, the PKI, was one of the largest in the world.) and Sukarno began moving more and more in that direction, the military grew more and more nervous and paranoid. Then in 1965, six army generals were killed in an apparent coup by elements in the military that did favor Sukarno and his left wing policies. There is much controversy about how and why this happened, but the result of it is unequivocal.
The military quickly destroyed the coup, and immediately put the fault on the doorstep of the PKI and Sukarno. Even though Sukarno would remain president for two more years (virtually powerless), the army, led by right wing general Suharto (who became president when Sukarno was forced out of office in 1967, and remained in power until the late nineties) saw an opportunity to take total control of the country, and impress the United States as well.
The army then began a repressive campaign across the country, arresting, torturing, and for the most part killing anyone who was a Communist, a leftist, a labor leader, or that they just didn’t like. But the majority of the killing was not done by the army. It was done by local paramilitary groups and gangs of mercenaries.
This of course naturally fit in with the interests of the United States, which silently approved of the political genocide taking place throughout Indonesia at the time. I was not surprised to learn that the US supported this kind of repression, since any in-depth reading of the history of American foreign policy since 1945 has been a litany of governments overthrown when they refused to align themselves with our own economic and political interests.
Despite our claim that we wanted to spread “democracy” to the rest of the world throughout the Cold War, many of the governments we overthrew directly or indirectly were democratically elected in free elections. But when the people in a country (usually one emerging from colonialism) voted against us, they had to be taught a lesson in free market democracy and capitalism, as it is understood in the West. This was not communism, but it was authoritarian, like the Eastern Bloc countries that were merely puppets for the Soviet Union that we supposedly were trying to “free” from Communist tyranny. It was really an example of “totalitarian capitalism.”
And yet I’m leading you way off track with all this talk of the Cold War in relation to the film itself.
The Act of Killing is not about Communism, Capitalism, or the Cold War. It’s about the psychological effects mass killings have on a country and a population that barely acknowledges it happened in the first place.
The technique director Joshua Oppenheimer uses to tell this story is that he identified several of the more notable paramilitary/gang leaders, and, for the most part, are not ashamed of what they did. Indeed, they are proud of it. So proud, that director Oppenheimer got them to agree to reenact some of the torture and murder they participated in. The twist here is that they all love Hollywood movies, and to tell their stories, the director has them act out the scenes in the dress and style of old classic cinema, mainly genre films like gangster, film noir, and Westerns.
This leads to several scenes that border on slapstick comedy because of the surreal quality of what the men are doing. But you never laugh, because the whole time you are forced to remember that these men are not actors. They are murderers who are reenacting the things they actually did to people.
And what specifically did they do?
The film centers around Anwar Congo. To see him now, he’s a skinny, frail looking older man in glasses who seems completely harmless. He’s soft spoken and for the most part polite. But he did things to people that are hard to fathom.
When Anwar takes the filmmakers to visit one of the rooms they used to take suspected communists for interrogation and torture, he says that when they started, they just beat people to death. But they stopped because it was too messy, and the stench of blood filled the room, making him sick.
So then, Anwar began using a long length of piano wire tied to a board. He would wrap the wire around a suspect’s neck, and just choke her or him to death. He shows us how he did it with particular emphasis on practical detail. This way proved much easier to clean up, so it became his method of choice when it came to killing.
Anwar shows that in one instance, they put a man’s neck under the leg of a wooden table. Then a group of them sit on the table and bounce up and down, all the while singing a song that sounds like something out of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. They really get into and begin laughing and joking around. Finally, one of them looks down and remembers why they sat on the table in the first place and remarks that they can stop now, because the guy on the ground looks dead.
The line I titled this review with is spoken by one of the former paramilitary leaders as they are preparing to reenact a village massacre. The context for this line is when he starts the scene by talking to some of his buddies, relating how if the communist was “pretty” he would rape them. He tells this in the same way a person would tell a dirty knock-knock joke. The other guys laugh, and he continues on, saying he raped women all the time before interrogating and/or killing them. They all laugh some more, pretty much acknowledging they raped communist women as well. They all join in agreement when he says that the younger the communist, the better. In his opinion, “fourteen” was the best age to rape someone at. “It’s gonna be Hell for you, but Heaven for me!” was what he told girls as young as fourteen before he raped them.
And yet this is not the most upsetting scene. Probably the worst is when, towards the end of the film, Anwar, dressed like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Petrified Forest, interrogates a communist who is holding her baby. (The communist woman is histrionically overacted by Anwar’s dimwitted friend and lackey hitman Hermann, someone who resembles the selfish-comical-slob persona that Danny McBride has created over the last ten years in movies like All the Real Girls, 30 Minutes Or Less, and This is the End. But I’m pretty sure McBride is not a psychopath like Hermann.)
As the scene goes on, we are pretty sure that something bad is going to happen to the baby (which, incidentally, is a teddy bear that apparently Anwar brought to the set himself). And yet when Anwar does the inevitable, it is still shocking.
He rips the teddy bear from Hermann’s arms, lays it on a table and stabs it in the head. But he doesn’t stop there. He then cuts upon the baby’s stomach and pulls out the stuffing. Hermann screams and cries the whole time like he’s acting in an old-school melodrama where Snidely Whiplash has come to claim the rent.
This is not fiction. This is something Anwar did at least once, and probably a lot more.
There are some lighter moments in the film, to balance itself out against the unbelievably cruelty of Anwar and the hundreds of other gangsters who did things just like him.
Hermann at one point attempts to run for office. He describes his motivation for wanting to be a politician by basically stating that if he’s a public figure, he can rip people off on an even bigger scale then he does in his day to day life. He talks about having the power to control I guess what we’d call zoning laws in the US, and how he can make thousands in bribes from people who don’t want to piss him off.
As Hermann campaigns in the streets (running as a candidate in the bizarrely named “Businessman and Workers Party”) he introduces himself to average lower income citizens on the streets and asks for their vote. When he only hands them a card, they say, in effect, “What’s this? Where’s my ‘gift’?”
It’s revealed here that it’s pretty common practice for politicians to pay people to vote for them. Later, at a political rally, the camera pans across a seemingly normal cheering crowd, holding banners and signs. Over the voice over, we hear Hermann say that no one goes to rallies like this because they believe in them or the candidates. They’re paid to go there.
The camera then pans back over the crowd, only much closer up, and then we see the facial expressions of these “enthusiastic” supporters. Some look incredibly bored, like they can’t wait to get out of there. Other people’s eyes dart back and forth, as if they’re scared someone will notice that they are really being “exuberant” enough.
“We are all soap opera actors today. Nobody says what they think. They just play their parts to survive.”
This is not a direct quote, but a paraphrase of how Hermann describes the way most Indonesians live now.
The only person in the film to express any remorse is the soft-spoken Anwar. As the film goes on, his expression turns darker. He moves slower and slower. He talks about how in his dreams he sees a severed head staring at him with eyes that won’t close, remembering a time he decapitated someone.
As the reenactments get more and more brutal, Anwar expresses regret and how scared he is that someday he’ll have to pay for what he did, but it’s hard to tell if he actually feels it, or if he’s just saying it because he knows he’s being filmed. Anwar is vain, agreeing to do the film because he loves American movies and thinks of himself as a kind of star or frustrated actor. But he also views the film as a way to tell his story, express regret, but never really say that what he did was wrong.
One of the final scenes is when Anwar returns to the torture room he first showed us at the beginning of the film. As he slowly walks around, reiterating the things he did to people there, he begins to gag, like he’s going to vomit. This goes on for at least five minutes, and Anwar seemingly can’t help himself. But can he? Is he that delusional to think that by finally showing some revulsion for strangling and torturing hundreds if not thousands of men and women personally, he might be forgiven? The film does not say or judge.
This one of the most effective aspects of the film. We never are told outright “This is wrong” or “Aren’t these people monsters?” We occasionally we hear the voice of the director asks questions, but they are very polite, even at times when he pushes people in uncomfortable directions. But this is not a Michael Moore film/polemic where Moore undercuts his very valid, moral arguments with cheap humor and dime-store outrage, displaying a spirit of self-righteousness that is more obnoxious than appealing. (It’s no wonder that in Team America: World Police, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, Moore is portrayed as a complete idiot who blows himself up at Team America’s headquarters in Mount Rushmore to make a “political” statement.)
The Act of Killing does not tell us that is wrong to torture and kill thousands of people simply because they hold beliefs that are different from you. We learned that (supposedly) when the Constitution was written. The film allows the killers to implicate themselves through their pride and need for validation, to escape how rotten their souls have become by attempting to forget something as horrific as the political genocide that took place in the mid-sixties. (It continued in a low-level way for decades afterwards, as communists or political prisoners who somehow escaped death languished in Indonesian prisons indefinitely.)
The dry rot of these men’s souls has polluted all of Indonesia, from the basic corruption displayed by average citizens on the street during Hermann’s comically-short political career (I forgot to mention he loses the election), to the government that, if completely backed into a corner of this issues, calls the massacre a “war,” which apparently justifies any sort of violent excess.
There are some scenes of the killers, looking like average suburban dads, walking with their families through Western-style shopping malls, where product names anyone in America would recognize immediately dominate the landscape. The mall scenes are creepy, as many average citizens walk past men who have proudly admitted to unfathomable crimes of violence. They talk on their cell phones, they browse through a jewelry store, they stroll through the mall, half-bored by what they see. Is this how evil escapes responsibility? By immersing oneself in total banality? And how many of these “average citizens” are guilty of the same crimes?
The overlooked legacy of the Cold War is the forgotten deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who did not support the United States or the West. Immediately someone will say, “But what about the massacres committed by the Soviet Union, China or other Communists governments during the same time?”
Everybody knows about those. It’s been pounded into our heads for decades how evil totalitarian communism is. How Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are just as bad as Hitler (a notion that I completely agree with.) But the repression and mass killings that took place around the world in the name of “democratic capitalism” are unknown in the United States, or, if acknowledged at all, it’s just dismissed as a “wartime” excess, tragic but beyond our control.
It was not a mistake. It was not a tragic error in our real politic logic. It was not a necessary evil to win the Cold War. It was an ideological crusade led by the United States to remake the world in its own image almost exclusively for its own economic interests.
When democratic elections gave us an answer to an economic equation that wasn’t good for us (Iran, Guatemala, Chile, etc.), we simply changed the equation so the local population couldn’t understand it. And if they did figure it out, we let terror proxies like Batiste, the Shah of Iran, Pinochet, Samoza, Suharto, or innumerable other criminal figures brutalize their people until they shut up and acted accordingly.
If the phrase, “It’s going to be Hell for you, but Heaven for me!” applied to countries during the Cold War, then Heaven would be the United States, and Hell would be any country that thought differently.
Again, I am way off track and discussing symptomatic issues that The Act of Killing does not address.
One lingering image from the film is one of the simplest. Anwar sits on a fishing pier, talking about how he feels he’s going to be punished some day for what he did. The camera lingers on him for a long time, as he talks and then pauses, unsure probably of how much he should reveal. Is he telling the truth? Does he feel remorse? Who can say? It’s probably safe to say that if a Hell does exist, Anwar will be there soon to pay for the immense pain and suffering he caused.
But for the present, he can only hold that remorseful look on his face as he sits on the pier, looking out at the dark water, brutal images running through his head that this documentary can only hint at. But for Anwar, this is a film that plays in his head all the time, knowing that he’s the director, the auteur of the piano-wire he strangled so many people to death with. Or the switchblade, used to eviscerate a baby because it was the child of a person whose political views had been deemed “unacceptable.”