6 Grim Truths Revealed in ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing has been generating increasing fear and bewilderment amongst the previously ignorant of late, bringing farcical performances of horrific murders from grinning, cha-cha-ing killers to our shocked and appalled senses. Acclaimed documentarist, actor, and executive producer Werner Herzog describes the film as “powerful, surreal and terrifying” and “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The fact that his contract requires him to repeat this to each interviewer is irrelevant; he is correct every time.

ActofKilling-Strangle Once the film finishes and the impotent rage and shaking have subsided, you may find that to stop the repetitions in your mind’s eye, you need to coax your denial back. Tell yourself ‘it could be worse’. And you’d be correct every time!

Admitting there’s a complex, systemic problem is the first step to really understanding and making futile attempts to rectify it. To truly move past the trauma of seeing The Act of Killing, we need to untangle and face all truths hidden beneath the now welcome distraction of pantomime homicide.

  1. The golden age of Hollywood improved the killers’ methods.

Stories thrive on cultural tropes, and Hollywood’s particular brand does comedy duos, underdog narratives and representations of gloriously vicious gang killings to a numbingly high standard. The classical Hollywood era is generally remembered in the collective Western consciousness as timeless, glib, interestingly-lit fantasies; glittery outfits gurning and flailing their way through songs about rain, safe in the knowledge that if ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz was almost certainly one. Their capacity to be read as a series of PSAs for a thrifty, efficient genocide went over our heads.

But this was not lost on The Act of Killing’s very own Laurel and Hardy, Anwar and Herman, who reveal that prior to the genocide they were just regular blue-collar gangsters (read: fateful underdogs), working in a black-market cinema which showed then-banned Hollywood films. They loved the good-ol days of industrialised ‘Merican cultural output as much as the next…average joe, from the latest Elvis vehicle to the many variations by which each genre depicted their protagonists committing efficacious murders.

Mob films were especially beloved by the gangsters, as they saw their lives reflected in the consequence-free narratives of their American brothers-in-arms. Anwar confesses that seeing those wily Americans performing that old ‘strangulation with wire’ act (classic!) in Hollywood gangster films gave them their preferred method for ending the lives of their many opponents. In an interview given on Indonesian public television, the show’s host trills enthusiastically at the “amazing” revelation that they were inspired by films, to create  “a system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive force”. And she’s on to something; the hilarious re-enactments of sadism-reduced torture featuring rotund cross-dressing extrovert Herman and self-congratulatory, wannabe-thespian Anwar is truly breathtaking. (Sorry.)

The real tragedy, of course, is that henceforth, when we watch a previously-beloved gangster film or the latest murder-centric thriller, we wont be able to enjoy it. The suspension of disbelief we relied on through torn flesh SFX and each scene of human-rights abuses, has been irrevocably ruined by those anti-commie bastards. And around half of us pay good money for our denial! Screw you, reality. The concept “it’s only a movie” has been rendered useless.

  1. Our government supported the genocide.

While officially Western democratic governments maintain that they were ignorant (I am tempted to end that sentence there, but that would be childish) to what was occurring in 1965, historians have claimed that they either allowed the communist purge to happen, or directly helped it along with loans, arms supplies and then turning a blind eye to what they’d already seen. At a 2009 international conference discussing the events in Singapore, Bradley R. Simpson, an assistant professor at Princeton and an expert on Indonesian history, said while he did not believe the US masterminded the coup (noting that as a distinct possibility) “there is a lot of evidence that the US was engaged in covert operations . . . to provoke a clash between the Army and the PKI . . . to wipe them out,” referring to the Indonesian Communist Party.

David Jenkins, former foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, added to this narrative noting that “the Australian, British and US embassies were aware of the mass killings, but did not raise a single protest to the systemic slaughter launched by the Army against the PKI.”

Unfortunately, knowing what we now know about military bartering, covert involvement in foreign conflicts and a general colonial attitude to the murder of brown people and/or The Baddies, it’s just not surprising to learn that we were on the wrong side of history in this particular genocide. Yawn, next…

  1. We, personally, depend on these regimes for our lifestyles.

In subsequent interviews, Oppenheimer has repeatedly made clear the connections these events have to the daily lives of the globalised capitalist societies (that’s most of us; almost certainly you. It’s definitely me.) The market forces of capitalism that underpin the retail industries rely on modernised slave labour to function, and that slave labour is enforced primarily in countries which have histories of mass poverty and violent, fatalistic oppression. Western companies and their consumers, in turn, fuel the end demand rampantly, every time a product made within these industries is advertised or purchased. Living without making these purchases is arguably possible, but so elusive and expensive that it could be branded and packaged as a luxury item itself.

Oppenheimer’s explanation of this dynamic in an interview with the LA Review of Books’ is a matter-of-fact, gentle yet stark indictment of this process, and the millions of people who must deny it to continue their lives without action to change it. He rightly reminds us that

“we are much closer to the perpetrators than we like to think. We know that even though in some way we may be victims of political systems, we’re also perpetrators. We know that every article of clothing touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. We know that all of them are working in places where there has been mass political violence, be it China or Indonesia. Where perpetrators have won, have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are not only killing themselves, are poisoning themselves in the process, but also unable to get the struggle of the human cost of everything we buy incorporated in the price tag we pay. That is to say we depend on the reality you see in The Act of Killing for our everyday living, which is to say also that this is not some distant reality on the other side of the world that is interesting to see how human beings have built this kind of upside down wonderland where black is white and white is black, good is evil and evil’s good. But rather, this is the underbelly of our reality.”

Sitting on donated furniture, in second-hand clothing (Made in Taiwan), typing on my second-hand laptop (Made in China), any sense of second-hand vindication fades from my tenuous grasp.

  1. Knowledge is not power.

While documentary film can be a fantastically powerful and effective medium for communication, it often tricks slacktivists into believing that they are part of the solution to wider systemic problems just by employing their ocular functions in a particular direction and acknowledging that a horrific situation is, indeed, totally happening or has like, literally happened. Documentaries are fantastic at posing questions, but not often successful (or appropriate for) giving answers or solutions to them. We know from TAOK and from history textbooks that these events have hardly been hidden from view, but what use is awareness in the face of continued oppression from the source that created it? Oppenheimer himself has said that “a film can’t change Indonesia. A film can just create space for Indonesians to change Indonesia.”

And we have to be hopeful that that space is large enough, because I’m pretty sure (though do check Wikipedia for me) that since the film premiered in 2012, global shit has still been hitting the worldwide fan at its previous velocities. Indeed, “the function of art is to show people what they know, but have been too afraid to say.” And what then? Unfortunately, in the main, people who have the powerful knowledge of oppression (in the form of flashbacks, scars, dead loved ones etc.) do not get into power, because it’s the people in power who oppressed them. Knowledge may be powerful, but commandeered power is like a fucking video game boss with cheat mode on.

  1. The perpetrators will almost certainly remain unpunished.

Following on nicely from our last uplifting anecdote, it is clear to see the remaining regime of violence and extortion that exists as a power structure in Indonesia. This is not going to change because a film draws attention to it, and there have been reports that the film has in fact failed to interest many Indonesians; in a Jakarta Post article titled “What Next After ‘Act of Killing’?” scholar Ariel Heryanto is quoted as saying

“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.”

It is noted that several screenings in Indonesia have 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.”

It seems huge numbers of Indonesian people have resigned to oppression and impunity as a part of their everyday life. In the same way that we mostly give up our voices and actions to business-as-usual in our own corporate-political system.

  1. It could have been you.

One of the hugest triumphs, and the most uncomfortable byproducts, of The Act of Killing is that the film forces us to see people, and not simply what they did. We watch these grandfathers play with their small grandchildren, teaching them how to be kind, trying to maintain their tenuous sense of authority. We are shown a bind of lifelong friendship that locks them into a grave trust and support of each other, allowing them to believe they weren’t (and aren’t) wrong, bad, or immoral because of their shared crimes. They are just another few in our giant community having to deny ignorance, misgivings and cruel behaviour in order to live with themselves. They do not have the liberty of allowing their beliefs and self-righteousness to slip. We aren’t sorry for them, neither should we be.

Having spent years interviewing perpetrators of genocide, Oppenheimer has said “For me, none of them are monsters, although their crimes are monstrous. […] Meeting the perpetrators makes it obvious that there is no monster. They are still human. They are still very, very human.” At a Q&A screening at my local cinema, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a direct question. Did spending time with these men for God knows how long, constantly having to hear (and accept?) their boasts and laughter about brutal murders, become easier or harder as time passed? He replied, he and his crew quickly became numb, and remained so for a great deal of time. Then sleepless nights started, then nightmares, and the cycle of no sleeping/recurrent nightmares continued for around 8 months. Still, he admitted that he could not guarantee that given the same upbringing and the same experiences, he would not have done the things that the 80+ perpetrators that he interviewed have done, and spent the rest of his life trying to blithely justify it.

We are all as vulnerable as each other to systemic patterns of violence, dominance, denial, delusion, and disregard for each other. Our families and friendships are full of it. With a few exceptions, we have brought it into our global political systems. And we need to understand the fundamental micro-actions we all perform to prevent seemingly indecipherable macro-abuses.

“We have to somehow accept that within the boundaries of humanity, crimes of that magnitude are still possible. They are not completely exotic. They’re not foreign to human nature. That’s a hard thing to swallow.”

[NB: This started out as a comedy article for Cracked, originally written as 6 Ways to Mentally Process the Act of Killing, a piece about my inability to do so. It has changed a lot since the first draft and, understandably, I feel conflicted in writing a (somewhat) comic piece relating to a genocide. However, my hope is that whoever reads this will engage with the conflicts within it, and with the film and the history if you haven’t yet done so.]

One thought on “6 Grim Truths Revealed in ‘The Act of Killing’

  1. You’ve taught me new things, Liz! I now have a fuller picture re. the making and impact of TAOK. Thank you very much!

    I must say, too, that your writing continues to be beautifully jaunty and witty.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

    (Apologies if I sound teacherly. It’s kind of ingrained.)

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