‘Preman’ is an Indonesian colloquial term for a member that is part of an organised gang or otherwise known; a gangster. Preman have long been part of urban life in Indonesia with reports finding that ‘the confluence of crime syndicates with perceived legitimate political authority has a history extending as far back as the Medang Kingdom.’ (Cribb, R. 1990) The roles of gangsters were particularly dominant during the Indonesian Revolution (1945 -49) as they adopted political roles of local authorities with the rights to carry out powerful crimes. During this same time the roles of a gangster was also idolised as a new type of crime thriller emerged – the mob films. This desirable sub-genre of film was a result of the Great Depression as it glorified the elusive underbelly of the United States during prohibition. In a society disillusioned with the American way of life the films quickly grew in global popularity, especially in Indonesia.
Fast track twenty years to 1965; The Indonesian government is overthrown by the military and any person who is opposed to the military dictatorship can be accused of being a communist. Over one million “communists” were murdered within a year as a direct result of this inquisition with army sourcing paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings.
The Act of Killing (2012) is an award winning documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer which documents these killings during this dictatorship as it follows two former Indonesian gangster and their associates as they reenact the war atrocities they committed. It is quite confronting as “they proudly tell the stories about what they did.” (Oppenheimer, J. 2013) To understand why, Oppenheimer asked the men accountable to recreate the killings in whatever way they wished. Drawing on the influence of the Mob films they grew up watching, they chose to recreate the killings to be like the Hollywood films they so greatly admired.
Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry are the two gangsters responsible and before leading the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra they were scalpers selling tickets outside the movie theatres in Medan. As they recreate the scenes of the killings we learn how Anwar “killed people who didn’t want to die, I forced them to die.” He also shows his methods where he states “I was influenced by gangster films where they always kill with wire. It’s faster with wire because the victim can’t grab it.” It is quite confronting to be said so casually and it has you think on the impact which Hollywood and popular culture can influence.
Watching the film you witness the longstanding corruption which has solidified into a core principle of the country as many powerful people continuously remind the audience that the term “gangster” in their society means “free man.” Further more, a leading newspaper publisher brags about how he manufactured evidence against suspected Communists, providing long lists for the death squads. (Boone, S. 2013) This corruption has stayed in place as ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honoured as national heroes by a docile (and often terrified) public. (Oppenheimer, J. 2013)
This is an extremely interesting aspect of Indonesia history which I had never even known to happen. This film brought to light not only the factual history but shed light on this part of Indonesian culture. Alongside the study of the influence the Western world has on Indonesia the insight into the aspect of Premen and the corruption in the culture is ever so daunting and eye opening.
Cribb, R. 1990, The Indonesia Killings of 1965 – 66: Studies from Java and Bali, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.
Oppenheimer, J. 2013, The Act of Killing, Denmark, viewed 15th March, 2016 <http://theactofkilling.com/>
Boone, S. 2013, The Act of Killing, US, viewed 17th March 2016 <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-act-of-killing-2013>