Indonesia, tanah airku,
tanah tumpah darahku.
Indonesia, my land and sea,
the land for which my blood spills.
-Indonesian National Anthem
* * *
History is so infamously known for being written by its victors. Those who win plant the flags, win the battles and get charged as innocent in justice trials. In the context of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia, right-wing death squad leaders were the victors, as they boldly proclaim that “history is written by the winners, and we are the winners.”
The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary about the making of a film revolving around the 1965 Communist purge in Indonesia. Framed as a documentary about the making of a film, The Act of Killing tells the story of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two poor black market movie ticket salesmen turned rich North Sumatran death squad leaders. Set years after the killings, the documentary explores their modern lives as corrupt right-wing political leaders whilst exploring their violent pasts. Their interest in movies and outlandish lives piqued the interest of Oppenheimer, as he assists them in making a film about their adventures as death squad leaders. With a part-time interest in history and a full-time Indonesian citizenship, I was initially intrigued by this documentary, as this was a part of my personal and national history. I felt curious, almost obliged to find out a little bit about what really happened in 1965, an event buried deep in the chaos of the political instability that rocked Southeast Asia during the Cold War. The Act of Killing tells both a national and personal history, presenting itself as a unique collage-like documentary that is part biography, part production drama and part historical epic with a fantastical twist.
The Indonesian name for the documentary is Jagal, which more or less translates to “butcher.” After watching the entirety of the documentary, a part of me wishes that they’d kept the name for the English version too. The documentary is graphic—vivid dramatizations of torture and violence, mentions of casual rape and murder and blood are among some of many topics explored figuratively, visually and narratively. Oppenheimer implements the surreal nature of the killer’s fantasies and delusions. Although difficult to view, the documentary refuses to shy away from the truth and refuses to leave things out. A lot of this is done in behind-the-scenes footage of the men preparing for various scenes in their movie. Anwar’s casual descriptions of torture and his pompous gloat over the number of men he killed are still a hard pill to swallow. Even the final scene in which the arson, rape, and killing of a Sumatran village is reenacted is too much for Anwar and his men to handle, leaving them to reflect on their past sadism. However, this is what makes The Act of Killing so riveting: its disturbing persistence in telling the story as it is.
Criticism has stemmed from the usage of fantasy, raising disputes in the classification of The Act of Killing as a documentary. However, reviewers such as A. O. Scott of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/movies/act-of-killing-re-enacts-indonesian-massacres.html?_r=0) have acknowledged Oppenheimer’s unique artistic decision, calling it “unusual, both in the annals of barbarity and the history of cinema.” However, I feel that the documentary would be incomplete without it, as it would have been difficult to emphasize and portray the disillusionment of these death squad leaders any other way. Out of touch with both reality and themselves, the mental dissonance that comes with being celebrated for single handedly executing Communists by cutting off their necks with wire is poignantly portrayed, albeit with a “garish absurdity.”
What remains the most disturbing to me is the number of “anonymous” contributors cited in the credits of the film. Most of these anonymous contributors are Indonesian citizens that have reasonable justification to leave their names out; many of the death squad leaders are powerful and highly influential figures in Indonesian politics and would have no trouble ending the lives of those who spoke against them.
Many portions of the massacre have been modified in Indonesian national textbooks, glorifying the killings, framing the eradication of alleged Communists and Chinese-Indonesians as a necessary act towards political stability. The massacre has been seen as a “necessary purge” rather than the genocide of millions. Until today, there has been no formal apology, reparations, nor official government statement for those affected, especially those in my own immediate family.
My grandfather still remembers hearing about anti-Communist troops storming his neighborhood mere hours after he left for work. He was only lucky that his neighbours maintained a level of respect for him and didn’t choose to rat him out. It was also at this time when my grandfather was forced to cut contact with any remaining members of family who were living in China, as he feared being detained for association with a Communist nation. Under government regulations, he also had to change his last name from Kuang to Haryanto, an Indonesian last name. However, other relatives were not so lucky and were taken in police custody in 1965, never heard from again. Racism towards Chinese-Indonesians remained a problem after the killings through most of his and my parents’ lives.
In the wake of the Jakarta bombings of January 14, 2016, much can said about the state of the country today. Violence and terrorism still lives on in Indonesia with new faces, new names and new causes to kill for. What remains indisputable is the government’s neglect in acknowledging systemic social happenings, such as corruption and poverty, which breed radicalism and senseless violence.
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the regime put in place because of these killings. The world, let alone the Indonesian government, has done little to nothing to acknowledge the role these men played, or persecute them for their crimes.
Their silence continues to speak volumes.