Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Act of Killing

THE ACT OF KILLING                     B                  
Denmark  Norway  Great Britain  (116 mi)  2012   d:  Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and anonymous    Director’s Cut (160 mi)    Official site

It is forbidden to kill.
Therefore, all murderers are punished,
unless they kill in large numbers,
and to the sound of trumpets.


The essence of real state terror is when people don’t know they’re afraid anymore.
—Ariel Heryonto, Indonesian writer

First of all, let me say that I’m of the opinion that it was a mistake to make this film, as the director believes that telling the story of Indonesian Genocide from the point of view of the perpetrators was a sacrifice he had to make, as otherwise there would be no film.  Had he attempted to tell the story from the point of view of the victims, the military would have forbidden any interviews from taking place, and would likely have confiscated any film.  So perhaps a film is not the way to go in getting this information out to the world.  After all, it wasn’t a film that exposed the tortures at Abu Ghraib or the flood of cover-up lies in Watergate, but solid newspaper reporting.  This is actually a story where the director collaborates with the perpetrators and offers them a forum in allowing them to reenact their most heinous crimes, when they assassinated as many as two and a half million communists in 1965-66.  Imagine making a post-war Nazi film where the filmmaker allows the Nazi’s to restage some of their most grisly atrocities in front of a camera, literally bragging about their actions, and even dragging in their wives and children and grandchildren to see how proud they are about what they’ve done.  Reminiscent of the feeling one gets when watching Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), something is morally deplorable about the idea of a film that would showcase brutal killers and then allow them to recreate in their own cinematic style how they visualize their role, seen jubilantly watching themselves onscreen afterwards where they continue to think of themselves as heroes in their nation’s history, yet they razed entire villages, raped and tortured, and committed government sanctioned ethnic cleansing, while no one has ever been charged with war crimes. 

Oppenheimer was present at the screening, showing for the first time the full-length, two hour and forty minutes Director’s Cut in Chicago (where the shorter, more compact version may have a greater impact as it does feel more focused), and suggested that at least in his mind, he made the film for the victims and their families, and for human rights supporters, as only in this particularly twisted and gruesome way would this chapter in Indonesian history ever be told.  According to Oppenheimer, no one in Indonesia had ever been told anything about what happened to all the missing persons in 1965, and as ironic as it may be, the murderers, in their zeal to proudly showcase their anti-communist hatred, reveal exactly how they systematically murdered, including thousands of beheadings, several million communists, union leaders, ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and social activists, becoming a disturbing psychological portrait of killers who are motivated not by ideology, but by wealth and stature.  Perhaps even more egregious is the United States helped fund the government’s genocide, as they were just as equally anti-communist, and even provided lists of names of known communists to target.  Needless to say, the film is detestable and disturbing while also remaining compelling cinema, as this is a particularly nasty chapter in world history that is made all the more peculiar by allowing members of the death squads to literally show off their murderous techniques, with several members mentioning how much pleasure they got by raping the 14-year old daughters of the victims they killed.

The American born director educated at Harvard has worked for over a decade with militias, death squads and their victims to explore the relationship between political violence and the public interest.  Oppenheimer’s family is Jewish, many of whom perished in the Holocaust, where he has developed a highly unsual view of human forgiveness, including befriending one’s enemies, whether it be mass torturers or the Gestapo, recognizing that evil has always been part of the human condition and is something that needs to be confronted and reconciled.  This film actually grew out of an earlier film, THE GLOBALISATION TAPES (2003), a documentary film about workers on an Indonesian Palm Oil plantation, many of whom have been stricken by horrible forms of cancer from working with such toxic chemicals and many also lost family members to the genocides. While they were never allowed to talk about 1965, it’s also notable that in this film, no one speaks for their lost voices either, as they continue to remain silenced.  Again in a written article, their voices would be heard, largely incorporated into the fabric of the story and able to comment on this monstrosity that we witness in this film, which focuses solely on the killer’s point of view, allowing them to boast about their crimes, where these men are gangsters and former street thugs who escaped punishment and are now some of the richest and most feared men in a rampantly corrupt country still run by a military state.  Of particular interest is the list of anonymous names in the final credits, as people are still afraid of repercussions, including one of the co-directors.  When Oppenheimer initially began seeking out interviews with the killers, literally finding upwards to a hundred, within minutes they all began boasting about their accomplishments, which caught him completely by surprise, as usually one fears reprisals for admitted acts of murder, but these men continue to speak with impunity, and even appear on a nationwide talk show in a particularly grotesque segment.  The film is a stark contrast to Rithy Panh’s autobiographical The Missing Picture (L'image manquante) (2013), where he recounts the Cambodian Genocide from the victim’s point of view, as he lost his entire family, and the film is a reverential tribute to the missing. 
The suggestion, of course, is that this film gets at the heart of what’s so disturbing, perhaps even more than any regular documentary film, which this certainly isn’t, as it’s a deeply unsettling film that exposes the mass murders that took place in Indonesia in 1965, while allowing the murderers themselves free access to express how they did it, reopening deep wounds from the past, where perhaps the point is that it is necessary and worthwhile to unearth these atrocities.  The men parade themselves in front of the camera with a kind of juvenile delight, which is a mix of the surreal, such as the dreamlike opening musical sequence that suggests all is right in the world, where colorfully clad dancing girls emerge from a giant fish, where offscreen a director’s voice shouts at them to keep smiling.  This is the lead-in to what amounts to a welcoming into the delusional world of the killers themselves, seen openly riding through the streets like anointed war heroes, pointing out the buildings where people were tortured and murdered in mass numbers, actually bringing the cameras to the exact sites where the murders took place.  The focus of the film is largely centered upon one character, Anwars Congo, now a family man and stately grandfather, seen early in the film dancing the cha-cha-cha, claiming he used to beat people to death but there was too much blood, so he refined the process, using a wire around their necks instead, something he learned from watching American gangster shows on television, showing the viewers how it’s done.  While Anwar still has nightmares about what he did, haunted by the eyes of the dead that continue to seek him out at night, so he tries to forget by using alcohol, marijuana, or ecstasy, breaking out into song, where his friend responds “He’s a happy man.”         

Anwar’s sidekick is Herman Koto, a larger-than-life figure whose chubby frame is often unadorned, a long-haired gangster feeling very comfortable in his skin, but also a goofball character who dresses in outlandish costumes in drag during the fantasy musical numbers, and never does he let this effect his overly macho masculinity.  Herman was too young to participate in the murders, as he was only 10 at the time, but he emulates their status as the nation’s heroes and tries to be like them, bathing in the glory of their past successes.  Added to this group is Adi Zulkadry, one of the gang of killers that belonged to a select team called the Frog Squad.  While these three may be the main protagonists, others join in when Anwar and his friends are asked to dramatize their roles before the cameras and show just what happened.  By turning the camera on the perpetrators themselves, the director then lets them tell their own story, which is far more effective than conducting interviews, as the dramatic impact couldn’t be more chillingly appalling.  Perhaps the viewer keeps waiting for the standard documentary to take shape, but Oppenheimer instead takes us into the heart of darkness of these men’s Hellish imaginations, and then leaves us there, where each recreation of events becomes even more nightmarishly horrendous than the last.  Adi is concerned that this movie will alter history and shift the blame onto them, changing the dynamic 180 degrees, as in the past they tried to pin the communists as the bad guys, where in real life they’re the wretchedly horrible creatures.  But it’s this image of themselves that they boast about and pride themselves on, as people are right to fear them, which is how they stay in power, as they are remorseless and show no moral boundaries whatsoever.  These are men capable of doing anything.        

Anwar shows a fondness for John Wayne westerns, Elvis Presley musicals, and gangster thrillers, where the sheer flamboyance of their reconstructions reflects a fascination with the glitter period mixed with B-movie horror, where seeing Herman dressed in red glitter, belly exposed, wearing thick eyeliner and a giant headdress is sure to generate audience laughter, as these guys are so over-the-top, it goes far beyond absurd.  It would be hard to imagine guys like Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Joseph Goebbels (or even lower level prison guards more reflective of these guy’s actual rank in the making of the genocide) conjuring up something this deplorably theatrical, taking this kind of unadulterated glee with themselves while doing it, where this obviously allows a certain catharsis to take place. What’s perhaps most intriguing is how these men have continually lied and deluded themselves (and their nation) for decades, shielding themselves with this fabricated vision of heroic truth so that they don’t have to face up to what they really are, cold blooded killers.  While one grows almost sick of the unchecked egos on display, it’s also hard to look away, as where else can genocide be expressed in this manner?  It feels mocking and highly exploitive, as if these guys are rubbing our noses in their immunity from prosecution, waving their own banner of freedom, but perhaps this indulgence goes too far, as it is certainly drawing the world’s attention.  While there is no notion of redemption for Anwar and his cohorts, one is left with a sense that Anwar is somewhat revolted by what he sees reflected back onscreen, and has perhaps even renounced the violence of his past by the end of the film, a mysterious acknowledgement of wrongdoing that recalls the infamous ending of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (1996), one of cinema’s most profound use of reenactment.  Oppenheimer allowed his film to be streamed online for free in Indonesia, where on the first day there were more than 6500 viewers.  The government’s secrets have inexplicably been revealed, where gangsters and thugs have been charading as freedom fighters, but are little more than murderers and assassins, where really the modus operandi in Indonesia is to rule by fear and intimidation, using the Pancasila Youth much like the Ton Ton Macoute in Haiti during the Papa Doc Duvalier era, where the government pulls out their heavily armed goon squad whenever they wish to suppress the opposition and strike fear into the hearts of all citizens, who continue to live under threat of arrest and persecution, while corruption rewarding the guilty parties remains rampant throughout every level of government.         

According to Oppenheimer, “They’re desperately trying to run away from the reality of what they’ve done.  You celebrate mass killing so you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer.  You keep your victims oppressed so that they don’t challenge your story.  When you put the justification—the celebration—under a microscope, you don’t necessarily see a lack of remorse, but you start to see an unravelling of the killers’ conscience.  So what appears to be the symptom of a lack of remorse is in fact the opposite.  It’s a sign of their humanity.”


While the film is bafflingly grotesque and astonishingly gruesome, not to mention often ridiculous, it may lead to a Nobel peace prize nomination for its director, which would be a first of its kind, as it’s hard to find another film that’s had such an immediate effect on a nation’s developing history.  But the hopefully profound effect of the film’s release in Indonesia has led to mixed reviews, perhaps slower in coming than the West would like to believe, largely because it implicates the people who continue to retain power, also the politically connected paramilitary group, the Pancasila Youth.  So the film can only be viewed secretly in Indonesia, mostly in small gatherings, where no one wants their names to appear on lists of people to be picked up by police for questioning.  As a result, the producers have initially been showing it through underground, invite-only screenings rather than submit it to the national censorship board for approval, which will likely come after the film’s theatrical run around the world is over.  Despite the hopes that the nation would undergo a massive social transformation in response to the film’s revelations, in effect calling for throwing all the bastards out of office as they participated in war crimes, this has simply not happened, but the next scheduled Presidential elections, where a new President must be elected, are coming up in 2014.

According to Dina Indrasafitri from The Jakarta Post, September 30, 2013, What next after 'Act of Killing'? | The Jakarta Post:

Noted scholar Ariel Heryanto from the Australian National University said at the conference that before TAOK was released, he had anticipated controversy and even a possible change of mind-set among Indonesians regarding the violence.

This, however, did not happen. “The film falls well short of generating the controversy in Indonesia that it deserves, particularly when compared with the impact it had on its international audience,” Ariel said.
According to Ariel, several planned private screenings in Indonesia had been cancelled due to lack of interest. Some viewers even walked out of the film before it ended, while others thought TAOK glorified its protagonists.
“If Indonesian viewers do not react to The Act of Killing with the same emotions as their international counterparts, the reason is not simply fear in expressing their voice,” Ariel said. “Rather, it is because news about preman-ism [gangsterism], vigilante behavior and their boasting impunity are all too common in everyday life.”
The lackluster response could also be attributed to changing times, according to Ariel. “Indonesia has also had a new generation of young adults who were not subjected to the vigorous anti-Communist witch hunt that ran during the height of the New Order.”
An increasing number of young people had little or no knowledge about the 1965 massacre, Ariel said. “Worse still, to many of them its not immediately clear why they should.” 

According to Carolyn Cooper from Guernica magazine, June 13, 2013, Caroline Cooper: The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing - Guernica / A ...

Indonesian history books and government-backed narratives continue to explain the 1960’s purges in terms of defense and national sovereignty. Until Suharto’s 1998 fall, the state’s own bloody, slasher-style propaganda film, Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, reinforced the idea that the nation was saved from communist terror. Indonesian schoolchildren under Suharto’s New Order regime were forced to see that film at least once per year.

“It is not particularly good or convincing acting,” recalled Indonesian journalist Dina Indrasafitri. “But imagine being seven years old seeing that movie. And seeing it every year afterward. That is a pretty early introduction to bloody scenes and propaganda.” […]

But Indonesia has been far slower to reckon with the earlier period of tremendous violence. “The reason for the inaction is that [current] President [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s] father-in-law, Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, was responsible for initiating the killing,” Professor Adrian Vickers, a University of Sydney expert on modern Indonesian history, wrote in an email. “So he’s unlikely to do much.”  […]

To date, the biggest number of simultaneous, private screenings in Indonesia occurred on December 10, 2012, International Human Rights Day, when an estimated fifty clandestine screenings in thirty cities took place. Oppenheimer estimates that, as of April, roughly three hundred covert screenings have happened in ninety-three Indonesian cities reaching up to fifteen thousand Indonesians.

“That’s not a huge number in a country like Indonesia,” he said. “But the film is like the kid in the emperor’s new clothes, pointing at the king and saying look, the king is naked. Everyone knew the king is naked but was too afraid to say so.”

Oppenheimer expects The Act of Killing will be banned by the country’s censorship board, to which he will have to submit the film to get it into Indonesian theaters. Although the country has fairly robust laws protecting freedom of print and online media, film censors continue to monitor what is shown in the theaters.

“If they ban the film, that will be a litmus test as to whether the government has any real commitment to ending impunity and to freedom of expression,” Oppenheimer said.

If the film is banned, Oppenheimer plans to upload it to the Internet so that it can be freely viewed. “We will encourage it being pirated,” he said. The film will be submitted to the censorship board following its global theatrical run.

According to Jean Duval from In Defense of Marxism, July 19, 2013, Indonesia: Review of “The Act of Killing” - In Defence of Marxism:

A special attention is given in the documentary to Pemuda Pancasila, a paramilitary youth movement and its relation to the state. Pemuda Pancasila (PP) is a million strong (3 to 5 million) militia composed of gangsters (‘preman’), petty criminals and youth of the informal sector and organised crime (extortion of Chinese traders). Pemuda was an attempt to create a mass organised base for reaction against the youth of the PKI, Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth) in the 1960’s. They were particularly active in North Sumatra (Medan and Aceh) in slaughtering communists. It is linked to the party of the dictatorship, Golkar. This movement still exists today as you will be able to see from the documentary. What is their role then today? Jusuf Kalla, the vice president of Indonesia, gives a straightforward answer in a speech shown in the documentary. In front of a meeting of cadres and political supporters of PP he explains:

“The spirit of Pancasila Youth, that some people accuse of being gangsters. Gangsters are people who work outside of the system, not for the government. The word gangster (‘preman’ in Bahasa Indonesia) comes from ‘free men’. This nation needs ‘free men’. If everyone worked for the government, we’d be a nation of bureaucrats. We’d get nothing done. We need gangsters to get things done. Free, private men, who get things done. We need gangsters, who are willing to take risks in business. Use your muscles! Muscles aren’t for beating up people. Although beating people up is sometimes needed. [laughter and applause in the hall].”

On another occasion, at a mass gathering of PP, the chairman of PP, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, delivered a speech in front of thousands of PP members and government officials, and once again highlighted the basis of the PP’s existence:

“All members of Pancasila Youth are heroes, from exterminating the communists, to fighting neo-communists and left-wing extremists, and those wishing to break apart the nation.”

It would be a mistake to think that PP is a militia made of lumpen elements from top to bottom. The leaders of PP are mostly highly educated people, with political and business ties. Yapto is a lawyer who finished his education in the Netherlands. He also owns a number of companies. His father, a retired Major General, is a member of the Javanese nobility. Here we see how gangsterism, militarism, capitalism, and feudalism in Indonesia form a complex interdependent network.

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