Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why the documentary "The Act of Killing" or "Jagal" is equally impressive and troubling

 Image from "The Act of Killing" taken during a private screening. Photo by:Yosef Djakababa

Why the documentary “The Act of Killing” or “Jagal” is equally impressive and troubling
By Yosef Djakababa*

 I finally saw the documentary that created so much buzz in Indonesia after its clip appeared on YouTube a while ago, “The Act of killing” or “Jagal” (Indonesian title) by Joshua Oppenheimer. The documentary focuses on the perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia that took the lives of hundreds of thousands alleged Communists.  This violent episode is part of a chain of events leading directly to a major political and social transformation in mid 1960’s. This series of events is popularly known as “Peristiwa’65” or “the 1965 event.”

The roots of the problem are deep and complex. Since early 1960s, the rivalry between PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia – Indonesian Communist Party), the Army, and President Sukarno intensified. The situation worsened as the interests of the Cold War and Sukarno’s “Konfrontasi” campaign against the new State of Malaysia increased the already heated political atmosphere, and thus complicated Indonesia’s domestic politics. The situation culminated on October 1, 1965 when an allegedly left-leaning military group who called themselves the 30th September Movement (G30S) launched an operation to abduct several top brass Army officers from their respective homes.  G30S took the generals to a place called Lubang Buaya in East Jakarta, where they killed them, dumped and left their bodies in an old well.

The Army blamed the PKI as the mastermind behind the killing of the Army Generals. As an act of retaliation, General Soeharto led the mass purging that made Indonesia a success in the Cold War’s anti-Communist campaign. The immediate outcome of this incident was the arrest and killings of hundreds of thousands if not millions of PKI members and its alleged sympathizers. Emerging as an important figure during this period, Soeharto eventually became Indonesia’s second President, replacing the ailing Sukarno and he will remain in power for more than thirty years. During his regime – known as the New Order, Soeharto consistently maintained his anti-Communist outlook and systematically suppressed any left leaning groups in Indonesia.

The New Order – sponsored history of 1965 highlights the heroism of the falling Generals and demonized the PKI and its followers.  The mass killings and illegal incarceration are absent in the school curriculum and public discourse. For decades, Indonesian public is reluctant to talk about this dark period. The survivors of the 65-66 tragedies however, continue to suffer from the violent repercussions and discrimination, especially throughout the New Order period. Thousands, if not millions of Indonesians are still suffering from what happened during those years and still struggling to recover from their troubling past.

Unlike other movies with 1965-66 themes, the documentary “The Act of Killing” bravely deals with the perpetrators. In my knowledge, “The Act of Killing” is the first documentary that highlights the point of view of those who actually did the killings and thus revealing their deep roles in the purging campaign. Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of the film, masterfully uses an innovative method to bring out this difficult and sensitive topic. By giving the space for the perpetrators to portray and reflect upon their experiences through re-enactment and movie making, Oppenheimer follows the perpetrators’ recollection, fantasy and ideas. The result is an image of ironic, absurd, sometimes comical, but also grotesque portrayals of men who proudly boast their ghastly roles in the 1965-1966 mass violence. Oppenheimer has succeeded in getting not only the point of view of the perpetrators, but also managed to take it into a different level when these perpetrators who are mostly preman or thugs, agree to re-enact and collaborate with him in what they thought to be a production of a feature film.

A spectator of the “The Act of Killing” might be wondering on how ethical is the method of the movie making. In several interviews, Oppenheimer denies any allegations that accuse him for manipulating the actors. He argues that these men actively participate not only in choreographing the film, but also in selecting costumes and themes, writing the scripts, and the filming such as selecting the camera angle. Furthermore, Oppenheimer claims that all actors have signed a release form, written in Indonesian language, that grants him, the filmmaker, unprecedented permission to use any footage. Just for my own curiosity, I was wondering whether the actors knew that the filmmaker had a plan to release behind the scenes fragments as a full documentary on its own rather than the feature film that they were producing. In any case, it would be interesting to see the final version of “Arsan dan Aminah” (the actual feature film project made by the perpetrators.)

The “Act of Killing” successfully highlights multifaceted personalities of the perpetrators as they are not only pictured as cold blooded, brutal, inhuman murderer, but also a loving father and a fun person to hang out and have drink with. Looking from this perspective, these perpetrators behave not too far different from the so called “normal” people.

I appreciate Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking approach in filming a sensitive and controversial topic. However, I am utterly disappointed with the lack of historical context in this documentary. The complicity of the period in which the mass killings took place is radically (if not pathetically) reduced into a few lines shown in the very beginning of the film. Plenty of evidences have shown how the events in the “1965 Indonesia” are very complex in nature. For example, the victims and survivors are not all the members of the Communist party or its affiliates, many of them are Sukarno loyalist and strong followers of the state ideology Pancasila.

Another misleading point of the documentary is the portrayal of Pancasila through the Pemuda Pancasila, a militant group consisting of radical youths and thugs. This focus could send a deceptive message that Pancasila is simply a “bad ideology” that blinds people. While this argument might be true for some, many others would think otherwise. I think the problem lies on the interpretation and implementation. All ideologies are subject to radical interpretation that perhaps leads to suppression and violence, but reducing Pancasila into merely a group of thugs would dangerously simplify not only the ideology itself but also the whole historical context of the atrocities in 1965-66.

With the lack of historical context, juxtaposing the act of killings, the perpetrators, and Pancasila suggests a simple opposition of evil versus good. Oppenheimer is exactly doing what Soeharto's New Order regime has done, but this time it is the other way around. The New Order’s infamous film “Pemberontakan G.30.S/PKI” (some called it “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI”) simplifies the narrative by depicting the evil Communists performs torture and acts of killings in their effort to get rid of Pancasila. What Oppenheimer does in “The Act of Killing” is the same simplification with the reverse protagonist and antagonists. He depicts the State sponsored perpetrators as the loyal Pancasila supporters who are eagerly wanting to get rid of the Communists. Highlighting this group as the representative of Pancasila ideology is just simply misleading. In my opinion, Pemuda Pancasila CANNOT be seen to be the only representative of Pancasila ideology nor their actions as the typical mindset of Pancasila followers. It is just the same by suggesting FPI (Front Pembela Islam) as the representative of Indonesian Islam, which they are NOT! This fact troubles me the most about the movie.

I understand that it is impossible to tell a complete story of “1965 event” in a documentary and I do not expect “The Act of Killing” to reconstruct the “1965 event” narrative. But I think it is still critical to establish at least a proper context to explain why the perpetrators; Anwar Congo and his friends, did what they did.  In the private screening that I attended, most people were disturbed by this movie. Many were also at lost and raised the following intriguing questions; Why can Anwar and his friends be so brutal but yet seems cool and happy in telling/reenacting their experience? What triggered them at that time to easily kill people, certainly not only because of the declining income from the cinema where they worked as told by one of the perpetrators? Why they suddenly becoming sadistic and so proud of what they did?  Why they were hailed as heroes in a TV show depicted in the movie? The documentary barely touches these questions, let alone provide hint to answer them. Interestingly, most of the audience also wanted to know what is the motivation of the filmmaker in making “The act of killing.”

Whatever the motivation could be, this documentary contributes to the debates around the “1965 event.” Better understanding of the historical context is a must to grasp the violence in 1965-66. One former political prisoner, who endured New Order incarceration in Buru Island, confided to me in an interview. He wanted to know and understand the whole reason why the government put someone like him (who were not a member of PKI) into a remote prison camp without any trial, and why he had to endured years of physical and mental suffering along with discrimination after being released. That being said; even someone who experienced first hand the turbulent period of 1965-1966 still has many questions about the nature of the conflict let alone those who did not live through that period.

I want to be clear that I am not condoning nor sympathizing with Anwar Congo or other perpetrators of the mass killings. I also do not support any repressive and violent acts even if a religion, state or a person sponsors and “legitimizes” it.  I only wish to see the multifaceted aspects of the “1965 event” not only being shown as a simplified black and white, good versus evil campaign, as the Soeharto’s New Order regime has done for years. Since the fall of Soeharto in 1998, scholars, activists and a number of human rights groups have worked so hard to debunk a simplified New Order version of “1965 event.” Unfortunately, “The Act of Killing” has the potential to repeat the mistake that the New Order regime has done by showing certain aspects of the “1965 event” (the perpetrators point of view) in a merely simplified black and white, good versus evil manner.  

Could a national reconciliation emerge from “The Act of Killing”? It is hard to tell. I think the otherwise would likely to happen; reconciliation will be even more difficult to attain.  The movie not only sends a message and portrays how brutal and violent the Indonesian people could be, but it also tells the supporters of PKI, victims and survivor of 1965-1966 tragedies that they should not dig into the past or otherwise they will be dealing with another potential violent repercussions; a fact that is suggested in some parts of the movie. Indonesians need to find peaceful ways in dealing with the troubled past by critically re-learning its history. Without knowledge and good will, history tends to repeat itself.

Nonetheless, I still recommend people to go and see, “The Act of Killing” aka “Jagal”, but one must observe it very cautiously and critically. Furthermore, I would strongly urge those who will or have already watched this film to seek as much as possible additional information about “the 1965 event” from many different perspectives: both from the “winners” and from the “losers.” Finding additional information is crucial in order to learn and have broader knowledge about how difficult and complex the situation when the mass killings took place. And hopefully we can all work together and find peaceful means in dealing with our nation’s troubled past so that we can move on and not to repeat the same mistakes.

*The writer is a historian and Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia. He has conducted a long and extensive research about the construction of the 1965 New Order official narrative for his Ph.D dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison U.S.A.

More info about the film:
Youtube link of the trailer: