Where Killers are Heroes


Friday, July 19, 2013

“We killed happily,” a sweet-faced septuagenarian says to the camera as he re-enacts a murder. The man is Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader in the 1965 Indonesian mass killings. He is a central character of the astonishing and unprecedented new documentary The Act of Killing.

When filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer first set out to tell the story of Indonesia’s Cold War-era bloodbath, he tried to talk to survivors, but the leaders of the genocide still occupy positions of power, and the survivors and families of the victims continue to live in fear and silence. The country has existed for decades in a state of willed political amnesia. So Oppenheimer turned his camera on the men who carried out executions and purges, who were perfectly happy to boast of their accomplishments, and demonstrate exactly how they were perpetrated — restaging the murders for Oppenheimer’s crew.

The result is a hallucinatory film within a film in which Anwar Congo and other paramilitaries imagine themselves as cowboys and gangsters in elaborate dramatizations that look like bad B-movies. With the help of smoke machines, gory makeup, colorful costumes, mood lighting, and triumphant music, they play the heroes in their own twisted dramas. Oppenheimer tells Kurt Andersen, “Every reenactment, every dramatization implied a denial of the moral meaning of what they had done.”

It isn’t until the very end of the documentary, after almost a decade of filming these re-enactments, that Anwar begins to grapple with the horrors of his past. And The Act of Killing is creating a groundswell in Indonesia, breaking the state of silence about the killings.

And yet the film is not a grueling reckoning, a Shoah; parts of it are even funny. “It’s the unmasking of the whole regime. So, it’s both terribly moving, but also cathartic and joyful because finally the regime is showing its true, rotten logic.”


Joshua Oppenheimer

Comments [3]

JMichael from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Can somebody tell me how Anderson manages to conduct this entire interview and make no mention of the following centrally important facts: (1) the U.S. media, exemplified by "the newspaper of record," the NY Times, saw these massacres as largely positive because they supposedly prevented Indonesia's slide into communism, and (2) these massacres would not, could not have taken place had it not been for the close relationship between the US and the Indochinese military (an American diplomat at the time named Robert Martens admitted to passing lists of 5,000 "Communist" operatives to the Indonesian military).

In fairness to Anderson, film critics A.O. Scott at the Times and and Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post manage the same dubious feat. Thanks to these intrepid members of the Fourth Estate for protecting we Americans from a particularly horrible episode from our past.

For more daylight, see Amy Goodman's interview of Oppenheimer on "Democracy Now."

Jul. 28 2013 11:37 AM
John from Brooklyn, NY

This important film highlights the impunity that persists in Indonesia for the 1965-66 mass murder and for later crimes committed by Indonesia's armed forces. This impunity must be challenged, as must the glorification of those who did the killing. Rights groups are supporting an appeal from survivors for the Indonesian government to acknowledge the truth about the 1965 crimes and to apologize and provide reparations to the victims and their families. See http://etan.org/action/saysorry.htm

Jul. 22 2013 04:59 PM
James Penha from Jakarta, Indonesia

My friend grew up in Western Sumatra in the 1960s. It was common for people suddenly to disappear . . . often, it was believed, into the local river where the voices of the dead can still be heard. His stories prompted my writing this poem, published some years ago:


At the bridge above the bend
of Batang Toru, the lower river,
in the Sumatran village
since 1965 called Si Pette--
One Waits.

At the bridge
above the Batang Toru rapids
the neighborhood children
tiered in trees
like spider monkeys in their jungle
heard their fathers
called Kommunist as
the word came to the village
to mean men hammered
and hacked by the new order
of things. Ding
dong the witches
dead in Batang Toru.

Divided they fell
like afternoon showers
usually do into the lower river.

Now when the children bathe
at dusk in Batang Toru,
they hear voices in the babble:
one waits.

No, spider monkeys would have objected
in striking discords.

Now when the children walk
the jungle at night,
they hear voices in the breezes:
one waits.

The children gaped silently,
retreated more surreptitiously than simians
and whispered screams
to those they found at home
alive. Their aunties held the stories
as tightly as crackers
in old cookie cans
lined with newspaper.

Now when the aunties care
for the ill and the orphaned,
they hear voices in deliria:
one waits.

Nor did these survivors open their mouths again
to eat the fish of the Batang Toru.
Strings and hooks hung

Now when the aunties beat
the grain at dawn,
they hear voices in the threshes:
one waits.

One waits
as it watches
those who net in the gorge
and dine on the fish
that fed on its guts
and hearts.

One waits
for the souls of its selves devoured
to rise against their hosts
to be devoured again
by time

and the rapid river

of one village waits.

Jul. 19 2013 01:47 AM

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