‘The Act of Killing’ and Indonesia’s Dark Past Nobody Talks About
I was 10 minutes late when I quietly sneaked in to a room crammed with people sitting tightly to their chairs. Their eyes fixed to the screen. I have been to many independent film screenings, but this one was not like any other.
There was no sign whatsoever to indicate that there’s a film screening inside. It was meant to be clandestine due to the nature of the film, entitled “The Act of Killing,” an award-winning documentary by British-based American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.
From the invitation I received, it clearly said the screening is a closed event and not to be passed around. Prior to the screening, the attendees were asked not to spread the word on social media to avoid unwanted difficulties. “The Act of Killing” contains materials that are prone to disturb viewers, not to mention the historical facts that are still hard to accept to some people in Indonesia.
“The Act of Killing” follows the life of Anwar Congo, who unashamedly claimed himself as a fearsome executor in Medan, North Sumatera, following the alleged abortive coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
As written in the history — or unwritten — the failed coup resulted in the witch-hunt against PKI members and alleged sympathizers. Many of them were captured, tortured and killed without legal trial. Once these alleged communists were detained, they would soon be handed to Anwar and his accomplices who would perform some of the gruesome executions ever imagined by mankind.
I’m not an expert in cinematography, but what is so interesting about “The Act of Killing,” apart from the obvious topic which remains untouched for a long time, is the way Anwar’s story being told.
Instead of the orthodox way of making documentary by combining interviews and footage, Oppenheimer creatively re-enacted what Anwar did in the past and shot them in the film. Anwar starred and acted in a film where he re-enacted all his mischievous deeds. It’s like making a documentary about Adolf Hitler and asked Der Fuhrer to act as himself in a staged scene.
During his heyday, Anwar was a movie buff and stated that he’s a big fan of American actor John Wayne, so he had no problem acting in front of camera.
For a street thug who had no formal background in drama, I was ever so surprised by how relatively decent Anwar’s acting was. He mentioned how western movies inspired his way of execution. He said repeatedly that his favorite method of execution is strangling his victim with a wire a la Italian mafia.
For those who have dug deep enough to learn more about this country’s unwritten history, what is portrayed in “The Act of Killing” is nothing but a confirmation. We’ve heard of the witch-hunt against the communists and the public lynchings that are considered as taboo to talk about. What’s different about this film is for the first time we’ve given the details by the perpetrators themselves.
Some online comments I read accused Oppenheimer of tricking Anwar and his men in shooting this film without their acknowledgment. After all, Anwar was persuaded to make another film which glorifies his role in destroying the communists in Medan, but what comes out as a final product is some kind of the behind-the-scene story of that film.
Ethics aside, Anwar and his henchmen admit their brutality and sadistic executions, but the thing is, they don’t quite feel guilty about it. They see what they did as something that should be done. It’s a matter of kill or get killed.
Public demand for “The Act of Killing” to be screened in Indonesia is high since the film won an award in Toronto Film Festival and featured in Tempo magazine. But I cannot see this film goes beyond limited screenings, at least in the near future. Not only the topic is controversial and it contains grotesque reenactments, but some scenes in the film have some prominent government officers whom I shall leave nameless until you see it yourself.
If one day “The Act of Killing” goes public – let’s say the film is available on Torrent or the pirated copies are being sold by street peddlers – I can’t see it not sparking controversy and dividing opinions. Some suggest that it would be better for now if it is kept limited so the closed circle of intellectuals and thinkers can make it as a learning object without the brouhaha it might cause if it’s released publicly.
I just wonder how we can make peace with ourselves as a nation and society if we keep on refusing to embrace the bitter truth of history. Our journey to reconciliation is far from over.