Friday, 30 August 2013

The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s film is one of the hardest documentary’s I have ever had to sit though in a cinema, it could easily been a insane psychological horror movie but what I was watching was a piece of history that really goes beyond the bounds of credibility. How could this story be true?  It starts with this rather apt quotation from Voltaire ‘All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets’ To explain we must understand a little of the story’s historical context and I make no apology for reprinting part of historian Jon Roosa article on the 1965 – 1966 massacres in Indonesia:
Villages full of women and children were burned to the ground.
In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, founder of the non-aligned movement, and leader of the national revolution against Dutch colonialism, was deposed and replaced by right-wing General Suharto. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which had been a core constituency in the struggle against Dutch colonialism, and which had firmly supported President Sukarno (who was not a communist), was immediately banned.
On the eve of the coup, the PKI was the largest communist party in the world, outside of a communist country. It was officially committed to winning power through elections, and its affiliates included all of Indonesia’s trade unions and cooperatives for landless farmers. Its major campaign issues included land reform, as well as nationalizing foreign-owned mining, oil, and plantation companies. In this, they sought to mobilize Indonesia’s vast natural resources for the benefit of the Indonesian people, who, in the aftermath of three hundred years of colonial exploitation, were, on the whole, extremely poor.
After the 1965 military coup, anybody opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist. This included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese, as well as anybody who struggled for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonialism.
In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million of these “communists” were murdered. In America, the massacre was regarded as a major “victory over communism”, and generally celebrated as good news. Time magazine reported “the West’s best news for years in Asia”, while The New York Times ran the headline, “A Gleam of Light in Asia”, and praised Washington for keeping its hand in the killings well hidden.
(The scapegoating of the ethnic Chinese, who had come to Indonesia in the 18th and 19th centuries, was done at the incitement of the US intelligence services, which sought to drive a wedge between the new Indonesian regime and the People’s Republic of China. The slaughter of village-level members of the PKI and its affiliate unions and cooperatives was also encouraged by the US, who was worried that without a “scorched earth” approach, the new Indonesian regime might eventually accommodate the PKI base.)
In many regions of Indonesia, the army recruited civilians to carry out the killings. They were organized into paramilitary groups, given basic training (and significant military back up). In the province of North Sumatra and elsewhere, the paramilitaries were recruited largely from the ranks of gangsters, or freeman. Ever since the massacres, the Indonesian government has celebrated the “extermination of the communists” as a patriotic struggle, and celebrated the paramilitaries and gangsters as its heroes, rewarding them with power and privilege. These men and their protégés have occupied key positions of power – and persecuted their opponents – ever since.[1]

Anwar Congo demonstrates his favourite method of killing.
The documentary is about the gangster’s and the paramilitaries that carried out the killings and although many thousands were slaughtered no one has been made answerable for these crimes. In fact some of the people responsible are still running the country and as Roosa has said, are treated like heroes.
He also acts out the part of a victim!
Oppenheimer persuaded some of these killers to appear in his film and not only discuss but act out there atrocities. They do this with great delight in the style of their favourite American movies genres: westerns, gangster movies or musicals. ‘They explicitly fashioned themselves and their methods of murder after their Hollywood idols. And coming out of the midnight show, they felt “just like gangsters who stepped off the screen”. In this heady mood, they strolled across the street to their office and killed their nightly quota of prisoners[2]. The main subject is an elderly grey haired granddad called Anwar Congo. In 1965 Mr. Congo and his cohorts were promoted from small time crooks that were selling cinema tickets on the black market to death squad leaders because they had a proven capacity for violence, and they hated the communists for boycotting American films. (American cinema has a lot to answer for!) It was their job to help the army to kill their so-called opponents. Congo himself admits killing hundreds of people with his own hands and complained that beating people to death was coursing too much blood that lead to the roof top area where the killings took place to smell dreadful. He adopted as his favoured method garroting people with a length of thin wire stretched between two points, something he picked up from a mafia movie. Anwar Congo is now shown as the highly respected founding father of the right wing paramilitary organisation called Pancassila Youth which today still can count on three million members to do their bidding. This powerful organisation boasts government ministers amongst its leaders and has great influence over the news media.
'Divines' act reaches it's climax.
What we see in this film is what passes for the ‘normality’ of killing in such a matter of fact way, something that is very hard to comprehend. We get an idea of what went on, and still does for all we know, scenes of torture and murder reenacted by a group of bizarrely dressed old men including one of his henchmen who thinks he’s the drag queen Divine, and what is really sickening is the use of traumatized young children. These murderous criminals demonstrate how they dealt with the disposal of people that were no longer wanted by the state. We also observe a surreal costumed musical number with Born Free played out under the spray of a giant waterfall where Congo receives a medal from his ‘dead’ victims for dispatching them to heaven. But as the film goes on we also witness how these men begin to realise the enormity of malevolent acts. For the victims playing their parts it all becomes too much, even Congo appears to begin to regret his actions and realises the full implications of what he’s done but nearly fifty years to late!  Watching the credits I noticed a lot of the crew were ‘named’ as anonymous!  

[1] Edited from observations on the massacres, their aftermath and implications, by Historian John Roosa.

[2] Press Notes.

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