Despite the savagery, Reston argued that Sukarno’s ouster was something about which Americans could feel not only optimistic (“control of this large and strategic archipelago is no longer in the hands of men fiercely hostile to the United States”) but proud. “It is doubtful if the coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam,” Reston wrote, “or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here.” In the years since, a fuller picture has emerged about how America aided the anti-Communist insurgencies in Indonesia—one of the biggest dominoes around—beginning in the late fifties: running covert bombing missions, furnishing weapons, supplying Suharto with the names of Indonesian Communists. “Communist” was a broad and exploitable category during the purge—a justification to kill people deemed undesirable for any number of reasons. In a top-secret intelligence report from 1968, since declassified, the C.I.A. called the massacre it had supported “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”
The text that appears on-screen at the start of “The Act of Killing,” an astonishing new documentary that opens this Friday, alludes to “the direct aid of western governments,” but the film, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, quickly arrives at its chief subject: the men who carried out the mass killings, and their discordantly cheerful recollections of that slaughter. (Anthony Lane reviews the film in this week’s magazine.) In 2012, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights submitted a report to the country’s Attorney General, based on interviews with hundreds of former prisoners; it acknowledged the purge’s “gross human rights violations” and recommended legal action against those responsible. But many of the most prominent perpetrators remain aligned with entrenched Indonesian powers (the country’s current President is a former army general), and have never had to answer for their actions. While filming in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, Oppenheimer found several men, now in middle and advanced age, who were overwhelmingly eager to discuss their roles in the purge, bragging about their cruelty and the brutal efficiency of their methods for extorting, strangling, and drowning victims. The central figure of Oppenheimer’s documentary, a nattily dressed septuagenarian called Anwar Congo, is rumored to have personally executed a thousand people. Details of the purge do not appear in Indonesian schoolbooks, and Communists are prohibited from organizing into parties. In the dominant version of Indonesian history, killers like Congo are cast as heroes.
Confronted with these men, Oppenheimer struck upon an audacious and bizarre storytelling device: he invited Congo and several of his fellow-executioners to make their own movie about the purge, telling the story through dramatic reënactments of their devising, in which they would portray not only themselves but also people they interrogated, tortured, and killed. The gusto with which Congo and his compatriots take to the project is jarring; this is grisly history as told by the victors. (The Texas-born Oppenheimer has explained in interviews that the executioners felt comfortable around him in large part because he is a citizen of a country that not only backed Suharto but that has long regarded Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, as a key ally.)
In an early scene, available to watch online, Anwar Congo demonstrates his favored garroting technique, involving a block of wood and a length of piano wire, on a Medan roof deck where he used to carry out executions. “At first, we beat them to death, but there was too much blood,” he explains, before breaking into a carefree cha-cha, twirling and humming on the killing floor.
Later, when Congo’s movie is underway, such reënactments are augmented by sets, make-up, fake blood, costumes, smoke effects, extras, prop guns, and at least two moments of elaborately costumed ensemble choreography. Tonally, Oppenheimer’s documentary is an unnerving jumble, all the more wrenching for its frequent and surreal spillage into what would be cringe comedy if the subject weren’t so horrifying. Imagine something like Franz Suchomel, the S.S. officer whose recollections were filmed secretly in “Shoah,” blithely re-staging a gas-chamber execution with B-movie ineptitude—Claude Lanzmann meets “American Movie.”
Over the years, relatives of purge victims in Indonesia have staged puppet shows and theatrical performances in attempts to tell their sides of the story. In focussing the audience’s attention entirely on the purge’s “winners,” however, Oppenheimer’s movie-in-a-movie conceit proves, counterintuitively, more radical: “The Act of Killing” becomes a complex rendering of men for whom guilt has no normal way of expressing itself, and for whom killing was, from the very start, a kind of theatrical performance. The typical investigative documentary sets about unearthing a truth obscured by ignorance and/or deception, but with “The Act of Killing,” that structure is severely scrambled: what Oppenheimer ultimately seeks to reveal is Congo’s self-deception in the face of acts he freely admits he committed.
Oppenheimer is not the first filmmaker to experiment with historical reënactment as a narrative form capable of yielding unique truths. In “Close-Up,” Abbas Kiarostami hired the opposing sides of a criminal trial to play themselves in a fascinating case of impersonation and fraud. In “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Werner Herzog, who signed onto “The Act of Killing” as an executive producer, drove the former Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler, who had spent several years in the nineteen-sixties as a P.O.W. in Laos, through thick jungles, bound and prodded by gun-toting actors. Errol Morris, another executive producer (who has written an essay at Slate connecting the Indonesian massacre to U.S. history), famously used reënactments in “The Thin Blue Line” that morphed, “Rashomon”-style, as the facts of a murder case evolved. Anwar Congo’s performances—hallucinatory, garish, contradictory, insane—are projections of his psyche, and, by extension, the psyche of a nation significantly in denial.
In this light, “The Act of Killing” brings to mind Morris’s “The Fog of War,” another film in which an aging man who once played a starring role in the violent deaths of multitudes tells his story. In that film, the man is Robert McNamara, who, in a particularly harrowing passage, discusses the brutal 1945 firebombing of Tokyo that he helped oversee as an Air Force lieutenant colonel. “Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night?” McNamara asks. “[Air Force General Curtis] LeMay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He and, I’d say, I were behaving as war criminals.… LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
A similar semantic-ethical discussion unfolds briefly in “The Act of Killing.” “War crimes are defined by the winners,” a killer asserts. “I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.” No one in the documentary calls himself a war criminal. The term that Congo and company prefer—one that pops up in casual conversation and is trotted out onstage at political rallies—is “free man,” a moniker denoting and celebrating a vision of unhindered male power that acts not just in satisfaction of its own desires but also for the glory of the free-market Indonesian state.
Oppenheimer demonstrates that the figure of the free man doesn’t reflect an atavistic regression that unfolded, at a safe remove, in some far-off, deeply alien society: Congo modelled himself, from his outfits to his killing techniques, on Hollywood movies he watched in his youth. The free man, derived from foundational and still-potent American fantasies of unfettered outlaws, should be as recognizable to us as the McDonald’s arches, boutique-studded shopping malls, and other symbols of Western influence sprinkled throughout Oppenheimer’s film.
During the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, state translators spent hours on end, day in, day out, interpreting stories of Apartheid-era suffering, deprivation, and violence. Narrating these tales out loud and in the first person, some translators began to manifest signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, as though they’d experienced the events they were relaying. I was reminded of this toward the end of “The Act of Killing,” when Congo, playing a purge victim in his movie, is fake-garroted in the same manner he once giddily employed. Rattled, he softly orders that the scene come to a halt, and seemingly confronts the horror of what he did. Soon afterward, Congo returns to the Medan roof deck, this time in no mood to do the cha-cha. What follows is surely one of the most jarring wordless sequences ever committed to film, one that features no dialogue but which is far from silent—it contains bursts of terrible noise. In this scene, and in the movie more broadly, Oppenheimer has captured something remarkable: the rupture between the stories Congo has always told himself and the counter-narrative he’s long held at bay. Whether the experience will implant some lasting change in Congo is impossible to know, but he exits that roof the same way we exit the film: stumbling, sickened, and stunned.
The New Yorker Film still: Drafthouse Films.
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