Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a film that Werner Herzog called “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is remarkable because its subjects are men with the blood of thousands on their hands, invited to re-imagine their crimes onscreen. The three, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto, do so gleefully. Aping the styles of film noir thrillers, westerns, and musicals; the group recreates war crimes they committed in 1965-66, following Suharto’s coup in Indonesia. The unique nature of the film is partially visual: the setpieces they stage are often dreamlike, in stark contrast with the horrors being recreated. More shocking than the surreal imagery, though, is the way that the killers boast with impunity about their acts. They move about their milieu and speak about their crimes freely, and this is what makes The Act of Killing such a shocking film. A society’s embrace of war inverts the moral order: it makes criminals into heroes, it renders victims nonexistent, and it supplants reality with propaganda, lies and mythology. The decision to let war criminals to go unpunished makes this inversion permanent and systemic. The Act of Killing is unique because it illustrates these realities by rendering the abstract visceral.
In 1965, following a coup attempt that was falsely blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party, Suharto took power and a bloody purge followed. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were promoted from petty gangsters to death squad leaders in North Sumatra, and for years they ran rampant. Congo claims to have personally killed over one thousand people. Congo’s death squad became a right-wing paramilitary organization, the Pancasila Youth (Pemuda Pancasila), which claims 3 million members, including government ministers. For his part, Anwar is hailed as a national hero.
In fact, all of Anwar’s fellow killers have profited handsomely from their crimes. A newspaper editor, Ibrahim Sinik, brags about forced confessions and summary executions. A Pancasila Youth leader, Safit Perdede, boasts about having raped during the course of massacres. Oppenheimer later follows him as he shakes down ethnic Chinese business owners for bribes. Wealthy businessmen and MPs alike boast about making their fortunes off illegality. During one bizarre sequence, Anwar and his comrades appear on a nightly talk show, as a chipper hostess discusses murder with her guests in front of an audience of uniformed Pemuda Pancasila militia members. Chris Hedges, in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, describes the breakdown of Yugoslavia by saying “the cast of warlords was made up of the dregs of society. These thieves, embezzlers, petty thugs, and even professional killers swiftly became war heroes” (Hedges, 27). The Pancasila Youth, like any proto-fascist movement, speaks in the language of violence and amplifies that message through its public presence. In the film, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla shows up at Pancasila Youth rally to cheer on the para-militaries, exhorting them to use violence and celebrating the gangsters as “free men.” The Pancasila uniform is tigerstripe camouflage in a flamboyant shade of orange. Unlike traditional fatigues worn to conceal, the Pancasila Youth wear their BDUs to draw attention. Just as the killers enriched by their crimes inverts traditional morality, so does the disguise-as-display reflect an order overturned.
During Yugoslavia’s breakup and subsequent descent into a Hobbesian nightmare, Željko Ražnatović, known as “Arkan,” went from violent petty criminal to Serb national hero. Ražnatović accumulated a decades-long rap sheet in Western Europe and the Balkans before the Yugoslav Wars. Ražnatović initially constituted his paramilitaries, Arkan’s Tigers, from the ranks of fellow criminals and soccer hooligans. During the Yugoslav Wars, Arkan’s Tigers were accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. However, the war elevated killers like Ražnatović to positions of power and national prestige. Following the war, Ražnatović bought a football team, lived in a luxurious mansion in Belgrade’s ritziest neighborhood, and married a Serbian pop superstar. Indonesia, like Serbia, demonstrates a truth universal to every nation that descends into war. The only members of society to benefit are those who are most comfortable with the act of killing. Ražnatović, rather than being an outlier, was simply one of recent history’s more flamboyant examples. Similarly, rather than presenting Anwar, Adi and Herman as aberrations, the film is presenting the viewer with examples of a constant.
Many sequences in The Act of Killing defy belief, and many will point to the final scene in which Anwar seems to grasp on some level the depth of his depravity. Though that sequence is memorable for the hint of vindication and closure it affords, even more noteworthy is one sequence in which Adi Zulkadry grapples with history itself. Between takes, Adi tries to convince his confederates that their project may be a threat to the established narrative, since Indonesian history holds that the purges were a response to Communist aggression. He enjoins his comrades to consider that if they reveal the depths of their brutality, it will give the lie to the idea that mass killings were justified to stop the Communists. Ultimately the group shoots the scene as planned, but Adi’s intervention is remarkable, because it lays bare the split between war’s reality and mythology.
Lawrence LeShan’s The Psychology of War explains this modality as sensory reality vs. mythic reality. The sensory reality in this situation is that as many as 1.5 million Indonesians were killed, and most of those were at the hands of government-backed irregular forces. The mythic reality, however, is that the government responded to a foreign threat with necessary force in order to protect the homeland. As Hedges explains in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning “In war, all groups look at themselves as victims. The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict.” (64) Adi is grappling in situ with the fact that their entire cinematic enterprise threatens the mythic reality that has afforded them impunity. There are many layers of narrative intersecting and being challenged in this moment: cinematic, historic, moral, ideological, mythological. It’s hard to think of another film where the audience gets to witness a moment like this.
Ultimately, these are issues of historiography—how we remember history and what moral judgments will be privileged—that the film is situating as its primary concern. Milan Kundera said “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” A society that refuses to grapple with the realities of what was done during war ends up looking like Indonesia to some degree. The Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s carried out state-terror campaigns that killed and tortured tens of thousands of citizens who were suspected of harboring left-leaning inclinations. Most of those countries had no reckoning with their dirty wars. War criminals throughout the Southern Cone, from low-level torturers to heads of state, were immunized by their governments.
Consequently, euphemisms like desaparecidos—“the disappeared”—emerged as a response to a state prohibition on making memory. Marguerite Feitlowitz, in her book A Lexicon of Terror, describes the euphemisms that mask war crimes as a “Devil’s Dictionary.” When Adi says, “‘war crimes’ are defined by the winners . . . I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition,” he’s speaking in this alternative language. This is the sort of propaganda that Truth & Reconciliation Commissions seek to counter. Even in a case like post-Apartheid South Africa where human rights abusers are mostly granted immunity, the return of truth to the official record is a crucial step. A society that refuses to pursue restorative justice allows war criminals like Adi to define reality.
In her book on Argentina, Feitlowitz interviewed hundreds of people who’d suffered during the junta years. There are countless stories of people encountering their torturers on the street or in cafés, just as Anwar, Adi and their fellow criminals can still enjoy the trappings of polite society. Lest Americans think of this as a phenomenon unique to the 2nd or 3rd world, we need to remember that war criminals benefit from a culture of impunity here, too. President Obama’s decision to grant immunity to Bush administration torturers was embodied by the vacuous cliché of “look forward, not back.” Consequently, war criminals from senior CIA officials to our own Vice President can give “sociopathic” interviews bragging about their involvement in torture. The 43rd President and his cabinet peddle memoirs and appear on nightly talk shows to explain how they planned a war of aggression; the Supreme International Crime under the Nuremberg Principles. America’s war criminals, like Indonesia’s, occupy positions of prominence, power, and privilege rather than prison cells.
As the global hegemon, the United States has a unique responsibility. Adi, when justifying his crimes, points to not only America’s genocide of American Indians, but Bush’s torture regime and the Iraq invasion. Adi, like other tyrants, point to American human-rights hypocrisy and culture of impunity as a means of justifying their own actions. When the US defies international law with impunity, it bolsters the idea that “justice” is merely to be wielded against those who lack the patronage of a powerful state. The fact that human rights prosecutions seem to only punish the weakest states has lead to both charges of racism and attempts to erect a human-rights framework outside the Washington consensus. Oppenheimer doesn’t even touch on American complicity with the Suharto regime in his film, though he discusses this relationship in interviews. In a twisted coincidence, one week before Oppenheimer appeared on The Daily Show (8/13) to discuss his film, Henry Kissinger had a humorous cameo on an episode of The Colbert Report (8/6). Along with President Gerald Ford, Kissinger is the American most responsible for enabling Suharto’s violence. That he can play the part of “respected elder statesman” on comedy shows is an ironic testament to the limits of justice.
The Act of Killing is a film that forces us to ask questions about what justice means. Societies that transgress the most sacred commandment on a national level must tell themselves comforting lies at every step. This film, like few others, illustrates what happens when a society is built upon those lies. It prompts us to make moral decisions about what happens afterwards.