What Indonesians really think about The Act of Killing
At a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary in Yogyakarta, reception ranges from anger at its 'celebration of killing' to hope that it will help Indonesia address its past
5 March 2014
The Act of Killing may have lost out on this year's Oscar for best documentary, but it has instigated a spectacular change within Indonesian society. The documentary, in which director Joshua Oppenheimer encourages the perpetrators of mass killings of the 1960s to re-enact their crimes for the camera, has been well received at film festivals around the world. But it is the reaction of the domestic Indonesian audience that is the most remarkable.
To understand how Oppenheimer's film challenges the Indonesian national narrative and the public discourse, it is essential to explore how the film is received and understood by an Indonesian audience. I screened The Act of Killing at a university in Yogyakarta. The audience -- a mixed group of students, history professors, and friends of the university -- included a former political prisoner who had spent 14 years of his life in captivity, where he experienced horrendous torture. He was never a communist; he wasn't even politically active. He still wonders why he was imprisoned under Suharto's regime. After the screening, he was profoundly touched, and he argued that the younger generations had to see this film so they could build a society with values far different from the ones Suharto established.
Indonesia's official history is plastered with anti-communist bias and fabrications that are presented as facts. The Indonesian school system is still, to a great extent, characterised by an authoritarian tradition -- one of the reasons why many students have not been critical of the country's past. It's not surprising that the film provoked anger and frustration among the audience. Many felt betrayed by the political elite.
Their feelings were not only directed towards the Indonesian power structure, but also at the spectacle on screen. The killers -- fans of film noir gangster movies and Hollywood musicals -- choose to re-enact their crimes by juxtaposing killing and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. The film becomes ludicrous as well as scary. It could be described as amusing, albeit with a macabre undertone. Indeed some moviegoers outside Indonesia have laughed at the sheer absurdity -- a markedly different reaction to that of the Indonesian audience.
At the screening, an audience member vented his anger at Oppenheimer's decision to give the killers free rein: "An alternative title of the film would be A Celebration of Killing. It is a series of festive occasions in which people are celebrating what they did in the past. And what they did in the past was kill other people. And that is not funny for us here, who more or less know what was going on. Maybe in other countries people don't know much about what happened here in the 1960s. For me, the documentary is about people celebrating the killing of others. That leads us to [examine] the banalities of evil."
Another viewer questioned the film's "happy ending", in which the main character, a death-squad leader named Anwar, seems to repent for his actions. He explained that the happy ending in The Act of Killing didn't mirror the state of affairs in Indonesia, because there has been no reparation for the killings of 1965-66. The audience member wondered if Anwar might be acting for the camera and also think that most viewers want a tidy ending. "[Ever] since Anwar was young he wanted to feature in a movie," the man said. "Movies are in his blood, and all of the sudden there is a film crew from abroad giving him a chance for it. Maybe his guilt is really true, but I think he is acting." This opinion created a silence in the screening room, and the comment produced speculation about the guilty conscience of the protagonist; was it merely a shoddy tribute to his beloved Hollywood? The same way that he drew inspiration from James Dean, John Wayne, Victor Mature and Marlon Brando, when it came to murder technique and wardrobe?
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer leads the audience through the executioners' everyday lives. He gives a glimpse of individual people involved in the atrocities rather than a historical overview of Indonesia's past. (For a wider historical view, and information on the involvement of foreign powers in the conflict, watch director Chris Hilton's Shadow Play  or anthropologist Robert Lemelson's 40 Years of Silence).  Oppenheimer's film blurs the usual good v evil narrative often seen in movies. The audience gets the chance to understand the perpetrators. Anwar, for example, is not simply a killing machine, but is capable of repenting for the atrocities of his past. The film argues that humans are complex and inscrutable and that this also applies to Anwar. He often appears happy and proud to be involved in events that have defined Indonesia. At the same time, he is ashamed when confronted with his actions.
Seeing Anwar's humanity gave the majority of the audience at the screening hope. The film showed them that Anwar acted on impulses that "made sense" to him in his everyday life. They started to understand the man behind the killer. But they also argued that forgiveness had to come hand in hand with reconciliation. Gangster capitalism, corruption and censorship still plague Indonesia's social landscape. It is not in the interests of the upper rungs of Indonesian society to analyse the atrocities or seek justice for the victims. There is still a sense that the average Indonesian has no rational alternative to the status quo. A vote for a political candidate puts bread on your table. Bribery and racketeering provide what one Indonesian woman described as "a heaven in this hell".
Through a network of underground distributors and social media, The Act of Killing has now been viewed by millions of Indonesians. Government and anti-communist organisations continue to try to stop its distribution, but their efforts are ultimately futile in the internet age.
It's a film that is impossible to ignore. Even people at the screening who didn't appreciate the "film within the film" structure and criticised its theatricality, thought The Act of Killing would be ground-breaking in helping Indonesia break its silence about its history. International attention will surely help the country come to terms with its past, as one woman said: "I hope that Joshua goes all the way with this film and that the film creates international attention. Then the government of Indonesia may be forced to deal with human rights in this country."