I love movies about villains.
For me, they are more interesting than films about heroes or saints, because they offer more intriguing perspectives on the dark sides of mankind. And sometimes, watching such movies can be a way to see morality in action — we want to see the villains being bad, and we want to see them punished. Maybe it justifies our righteousness, or simply fulfils our need for an adrenaline rush.
“The Act of Killing” a new documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is, quite simply, a movie about villains. Real villains, not “ordinary” ones. It is about a group of killers who murdered thousands of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) during a string of executions in Medan. They were acting under the orders of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) and the New Order paramilitary group, Pancasila Youth, as part of the killing of perhaps more than 1 million communists across Indonesia in 1965.
That fact has long been a public secret, a sensitive issue that has been erased from history lessons in Indonesian schools. My generation, who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, were indoctrinated with the opposite “fact”: that the PKI was the villain, the barbaric sect who tried to overthrow the Sukarno government by murdering seven generals on Sept. 30 1965, before Gen. Suharto and the army saved the day.
But with the fall of the New Order and the emergence of the Reform Era in 1998, the other side of the story has slowly been brought to the surface. However, a trial has never been held and those responsible for the murders, from highest to the lowest levels, remain unpunished to this day.
“The Act of Killing” portrays those at the lowest level. We meet Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry. Back in the 1960s, they were low-life gangsters making petty mob money around a movie theater in Medan, before being recruited by the military to join the death squad to hunt, torture and kill communists in and around the city.
Oppenheimer somehow managed to persuade all of them to retell what was happening during those horrific times. Well, “retell” is, in fact, an understatement. Anwar and friends wanted to re-enact their deeds in some epic, glorious fashion — like in Hollywood movies. They wrote, directed and acted their own parts, and at times also took on multiple roles as the victims or extras.
The film that they are making becomes a weird piece of propaganda sinetron gone awry, mixing elements of musical, western and gangster movies. Oppenheimer documents all of this, creating a documentary that recreates these scenes in what turns out to be a unique, twisted cinematic experience, intertwined with his own portrayals of the characters “behind the screens” and putting all the pieces together in a rather episodic storyline.
The result is perhaps the most bizarre yet strangely profound and thought-provoking documentary I have ever seen. It is full of outrageous scenes and startling dialogue that borders between being hilariously funny and awfully disturbing.
Yet for me, the best thing about the film is that it makes a remarkable character study. With a great sense of intimacy, Oppenheimer takes a closer look at each subject.
Forty-seven years have passed, and the trio have become ordinary citizens. They live among neighbors whose relatives they murdered. Herman tried to become a member of parliament through bribery and failed. Adi has become a suburban middle-class family man, taking his family to the mall on weekends. Anwar, the retired preman (gangster or “free man,” as he likes to emphasize), plays with his grandchildren in his backyard, teaching them not to hurt chickens and small animals.
The contrast between these mundane lives and the dread of their past is striking. As Oppenheimer describes in his director’s statement, boasts or self-applause are crucial parts of the film, and became one of his methods of getting the killers to open up to him.
We see the killers bragging and justifying their murders as a heroic act, done out of a necessity to defend the country. They need validation. They want to be remembered in history, for their “achievements.” So they eagerly made the film like little boys playing with new toys.
The audience sits through all the bluffs, not only the bluffs of the trio, but also of bureaucrats, local journalists, and high-powered politicians. We see Anwar proudly describing his method of murder on local TV. Adi brags about killing his ex-girlfriend’s father, who was Chinese. Safit Pardede, a member of the Pancasila Youth, boasts about raping an underage member of Gerwani, a women’s group, greeted by cheers and whistles.
However, Oppenheimer does pay more special attention — with a bit of subtle empathy — to Anwar, who becomes the lead character, with much of the film seen through his perspective.
We see Anwar breaking down, telling us about the nightmares that have been haunting him for years. He cries and tells Oppenheimer that he couldn’t bear playing the victim and finishing the strangling re-enactment scene because he could feel how they felt back then. The director challenged him on this, saying that he cannot in any way be in the same position as the victims, since what happened to them was real. It is clear that through this movie, the deranged Anwar is seeking not only approval, but also redemption.
Yet, does it matter? Should we take his “excuses”? Do we still have to punish him? It is easy to say yes (or no), but watching this film I find the real monstrous villain is still lurking, that monstrous villain being the banal, fascistic heritage embedded in society through 32 years of the New Order regime, which in the end enables people like the killer trio, corrupt politicians and Pancasila Youth leaders to boast about their past deeds as necessary evil.
The saddest thing beneath all of this, for me, is seeing how the New Order’s legacy gives very limited room for ordinary people to develop their own roles and capacities in a tolerant, civil society. And the horror of the fact that we, the current generation, still have to live with it.
Through this film, we see that in this country, even the act of killing — in particular killing a great number of people — can be a sign of achievement.
Farah Wardani is an Indonesian art critic,art historian and curator.