“War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.”
From 1965-1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million civilians were murdered by the Indonesian military, gangster paramilitary groups, and other government-sponsored citizens. As part of a massive political upheaval, members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), communist sympathizers, ethnic minorities, and any other civilians arbitrarily deemed a threat to the “New Order” were dragged from their homes and executed. Victims were not slaughtered in mass but individually, with methods ranging from shooting, dismemberment, disembowelment, castration, impalement, strangulation, rape, and beheading. The carnage went on for an entire year, and notably with the support of the United States government, which provided both financial and intelligence assistance (including the names of suspected communists) to the Indonesian military. “No one cared, as long as they were Communists, that they were being butchered,” one State Department official later stated. Time magazine referred to the extermination as “The West’s best news for years in Asia”.
Unlike the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity since, the Indonesian genocide of 1965 has never been internationally accounted for, and its perpetrators still live free and prosperous lives to this day, celebrated as heroes in their country. Through his wildly upsetting 2012 documentary The Act of Killing (and his 2014 companion piece The Look of Silence), British-American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer offers a startling view of the massacre through the unlikely eyes of its perpetrators. Predominantly told by Anwar Congo, a gangster who played a vicious but ultimately typical role in the mass murders, The Act of Killing is a chilling portrait of the banality of evil and the core inhumanity of taking a life.
Joshua Oppenheimer first came to Indonesia in the early 2000s, and was “immediately” accepted by Anwar Congo and his friends. “The Americans had supported what they had done, [and] they love American movies”, he recalls in an interview. That love of cinema forms much of the structure for The Act of Killing, as Oppenheimer extracts their stories predominantly by asking them to reenact their actions as a movie. The men are ecstatic to do so, eager to relive their good old days and celebrate their exploits in front of an international audience. As they begin shooting, Oppenheimer diligently records their evolving reactions, in addition to filming some of their public appearances. While the film may lack complete concentration, dragging at times in its nearly three-hour runtime, the result is nevertheless breathtaking, a nauseating descent into the minds and institutions behind one of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century.
Early in the film, Anwar takes Joshua and his crew around the various places where they carried out their grisly deeds, with the nostalgic mood of a friend revisiting an old haunt from his youth. “We killed a lot of people there,” Anwar says more than once, pointing to a nondescript, dilapidated office across the street from a closed cinema. During the extermination, Anwar recounts, he and his friends would burst out of a gangster movie in elation and eagerly return to killing across the street, so inspired by the cinematic bloodlust that they would try to emulate the fictional murders they just watched.
There’s a startling, immensely disturbing transparency to the way every one of Oppenheimer’s subjects conducts themselves in front of the camera. Some are completely unrepentant, knowing full well what they did was evil but blatantly refusing to apologize or atone. Others, like Anwar, have less of a thick skin, barely fighting away nightmares with the flimsy aid of government propaganda supporting their actions. Only when Anwar is forced to play the role of a victim in the film’s fake movie does his shame and self-disgust rear its pitiful head. Afterwards, he nearly breaks down in tears when Joshua remarks that the people he tortured went through even worse, because “you knew it was only a film, they knew they were being killed”.
Breathtaking scenes like the one above are certainly among the most astounding of the past decade, but just as memorable are the surreal moments celebrating barbarity that exist everywhere in Oppenheimer’s depiction of modern Indonesia. A horrifying scene about halfway through the film shows Anwar’s appearance on a talk show, whose host amicably talks about mass extermination like an American late night host might discuss the latest Taylor Swift album. Behind the camera, one of the sound operators casually wonders aloud, “how many people has he killed?”, to which her partner replies, “around a thousand, I think”. The brief exchange hits as hard as anything else in the film, not because the two sound operators necessarily believe in the glory of Anwar’s crimes, but because of their total indifference to them.
The Act of Killing is a horrifying examination of genocide and its lingering trauma, but it’s also a frightening portrait of a society that has accepted the deaths of millions and moved on. There were no Nuremberg trials for Anwar and the hundreds of war criminals like him, and every day that goes by without justice only asserts the ‘authority’ and ‘correctness’ of what they’ve done. This is what happens when hate and total indifference to human life triumphs over decency and kindness. The world of The Act of Killing is ultimately not an evil one but a post-evil one. It’s post-morality. After all, how can such fundamental ideas of basic right and wrong even exist when no one cares to fight for them?
“We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it.”