The film The Act of Killing gives the viewer an insight into several issues in Indonesia, both past and present. While the film mainly focuses on the mass murders that occurred between 1965-66, after the military overthrew the then government leading to the execution of an estimated 500 000 “communist”, it also provides an insight into how the country is currently dealing with those murders and the ongoing corruption of the same government which remains in power. While the film focuses on a few of the paramilitary leaders and gangsters responsible for the murders and their stories, it’s the glimpses of the Indonesian peoples reactions that seep through that are the real insightful, interesting and true focus of this film for me.
Gangster and paramilitary leader during the 1965-66 murders, Anwar, is one of the executioners the film focuses on that was asked to create a re-enactment of his executions. In the filming of his re-enactment the actor Suryono, who plays the communists, tells Anwar and his fellow executioners of when he was 12 and his Chinese stepfather was abducted then executed. Suryono claims he’s telling them not to be critical but rather because he wants them to have input for the story. You assume that he says this because of the fear these paramilitary leaders still hold in Indonesia. It’s Suryono’s genuine anguish and trauma when acting along with his reaction to when the executioners admit their re-enactment will disprove the propaganda of the communist being the cruel ones, that’s one of the glimpses into the Indonesian people true reaction that makes this film bearable.
Suryono with executioners (The Act of Killing 2013)
Same again when fellow executioner Herman re-enacts his scene that the actors, including his own daughter and an elderly women, are clearly distressed post filming that you further realise how traumatic these events still are for Indonesians.
In the film Anwar’s fellow executioner Adi states ‘we were allowed to do it and the proof is we were never punished’ validated by the fact that the government is still in power providing these perpetrators with continued protection and immunity. Contrary to what seems to be the fitting treatment for them, they are interviewed and praised on Indonesian National Television. While onstage everyone seems to be glorifying their behaviour, it’s the reaction from the staff backstage, who question how one can kill over 1000 people and still sleep at night, which may be a more accurate representation of Indonesians feelings towards these murderers. Along with not being held accountable for these murders the film shows how movements such as the Pancasila Youth movement still have ties with the army, police and the government and how these ties enable corruption within Indonesia.
Apart from using films that Anwar and Herman love as inspiration for their re-enactments of the story, it still remains unclear to me the connection between scenes such as when Herman’s in drag or when Anwar is in the jungle dressed as a cowboy, and the real occurrences of the death squad. To me providing them with a platform to re-enact these scenes, dressed as stars they admire and in the style of Hollywood megapics, seems to further enable the farce that continues around this topic and doesn’t do anything to reconcile the past. Glimmers of remorse squeeze through occasionally throughout the film, namely from Anwar towards the end, yet they seem to revel in the retelling of these stories and in the ability to become not only “stars” but also directors.
On seeing his re-enactment, Anwar states ‘it’s a good family movie, plenty of humour, wonderful scenery…even if its about death’. Its unclear if its delusion or denial that guide the main character’s re-enactments, or just the desire to craft a good story.
The Act Of Killing 2013, motion picture, Dogwoof Pictures