Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is the most unsettling documentary I have ever watched. This documentary focused on a group of men in North Sumatra who were involved in Indonesia’s purge of communists in 1965-66.
Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a history of violence in dealing with communists in the country. But unlike Malaysia, Indonesia’s fight against communism strongly suggested one involving mass genocide.
In 1965, the Indonesian government led by President Sukarno was overthrown by the military. The new leader, President Suharto, called for a purge of communism from the country. Union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese — those who opposed the government— were sometimes accused of being “communists”, and being accused of such often meant death without trial. The Indonesian army used paramilitary groups and gangsters to hunt down and execute suspected communists.
No hidden cameras, no undercover agents, and no coercion needed in “The Act of Killing”. Executioners and government officials spoke frankly and freely – and sometimes with pride— about Indonesia’s atrocities.
This film mainly focused on Anwar Congo, a gangster who became famous and much feared after his violent role in Indonesia’s struggles against communism. Also in focus were Anwar’s fellow executioners, Adi Zulkadry and Erman Kotto.
Anwar and his friends were also given the unique opportunity to reenact, in whichever way they liked, their involvement in the killings for “The Act of Killing”.
In one surreal scene directed by Anwar and his friends, for instance, had dancers gyrating to John Barry’s hit song “Born Free”. On a hill slope stood Anwar and Erman with some pale-looking dead communists. One of these dead communists then gave a medal to Anwar before shaking Anwar’s hand, and incredulously, thanking Anwar for killing and sending him to heaven.
This scene is surreal, but it actually depicts how people such as Anwar Congo and his friends, as well as paramilitary groups (such as Pancasila Youth), are celebrated in Indonesia as the nation’s heroes and as the legitimate killers of communists.
During a Pancasila Youth function, for example, Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla equated paramilitary groups to gangsters but not akin to “bad men” but akin to “free men” (thus, the reason for the song “Born Free” chosen by Anwar). These “free men” are still seen as essential by the Indonesian government because they work outside the system to help to enforce peace and security.
Gangsters can create either chaos or peace, the governor of North Sumatra, Syamsul Arifin, explained in the documentary, so it was important for Indonesia to work with these gangsters and to use them for help.
No surprise then paramilitary groups and gangsters had a free reign of terror during the Indonesia’s purge of communists. These death squads were literally the judge, jury, and executioner. There were no court trials and no careful collection and examination of evidence. Further aided by members of the local Press, suspected communists were rounded up, interrogated, and, sometimes immediately thereafter, executed.
One such member of the Press who was involved in the identification and interrogation of communists was Ibrahim Sinik, the chief editor of Medan Pos newspaper. “Whatever we asked [the suspected communists], we’d change their answers – to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them. That’s all.”
Ibrahim further boasted about his power over life and death, “One wink from me, and they are dead.”
And death for these communists did not come humanely but in various morbid ways. Anwar Congo’s colleague, Adi Zulkadry, further clarified, “We shoved wood in their anus until they died, we crushed their necks with wood, we hung them, we strangled them with wire, we cut off their heads, and we ran them over with cars.
“We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed…there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it.
“Maybe I’m trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”
Adi does not see his killings as a war crime but justifies them because his actions were similar to what the US Presidents did when they went to war with other countries.
“War crimes are defined by the winners,” Adi explained. “I am a winner, so I can make my own definition … I don’t care about international definitions. And more importantly: not everything true is good. Some truths are not good, like re-opening this case.”
“But why focus just on the killings of these communists?” Adi asked. “Start with the first murder case: Cain and Abel … Americans killed the Indians. Has anyone been punished for that? Punish them!”
Unlike Adi who claimed not to be disturbed by his past killings, Anwar at least admitted to having nightmares and sometimes doubted the legitimacy of his killing acts.
But Anwar appeared mostly calm, talkative, and eager to share in the documentary. In one scene, Anwar led the documentary film crew to the rooftop balcony of a building where executions had been carried out.
“There’s many ghosts here because many people were killed here,” Anwar explained. “They died unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy. When they got here, they were beaten up … and died … dragged around … and dumped.
“At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood,” Anwar explained calmly. “There was so much blood here. So, even when we cleaned it up, it still smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system … Can I show you?”
With the help of a volunteer, Anwar simulated for the film crew his method of bloodless killing: death by strangulation using a stiff wire.
A prolific killer, Anwar remains well known and much feared even to today. Word about Anwar’s involvement in “The Act of Killing” documentary soon spread, leading Anwar and his friends to be appear in a local TV talk show. This scene of their interview sets one of the most surreal scenes in the documentary.
“So, you brought the communists straight to your office?” the TV host, a young lady, asked Anwar.
“Yes and after we interrogated them and decided they shouldn’t be alive … we had to kill them.”
“And was your method of killing inspired by gangster films?”
“Amazing!” the host exclaimed. “He was inspired by films!”
Laughter and claps from the audience, nearly all of them were Pancasila Youth members.
“Each genre had its own method,” Anwar added. “Like in mafia movies, they strangle the guy in the car, tie him up, then dump the body. So, we did that too.”
“Which means,” the host interjected, “Anwar and his friends developed a new and more efficient system for exterminating communists. It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence … But at the end you just wiped them out!”
More laughter and claps from the audience.
Killing people ala gangster and Mafia style? More efficient and humane way to kill people? I watched this whole TV interview scene, feeling incredulous and wondering if the TV host and the rest of Indonesia really understood what killing a person actually entailed.
Seen as heroes who served their country, Anwar and his friends remain as powerful men with connections to paramilitary groups and political leaders in Indonesia.
Mass killings in a “communist” village were even reenacted in full hatred by Anwar and his friends. Even Indonesia’s Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, Sakhyan Asmara, wanted in on the action. Coming down to the film set on the day of reenactment, the Deputy Minister gave a pep talk to the amateur actors. “We must exterminate the communists. We must totally wipe them out,” the Deputy Minister reminded, “but in a more humane way … This is the true story. That’s what we want, right?”
Yes, we do want the “true story”, but the true story is hardly “humane”. Anwar’s reenactment presented disturbing scenes where everyone in the village – men, women, and children – were slaughtered in ways that included brutal beatings, strangulation by wire and being hacked by machetes.
“Kill them all!” Anwar repeated several times, as he walked through the carnage of screams and deaths. In the reenactment climax, the villagers’ homes were burned down for real. No survivors, no mercy, and no law.
Boasts that women and girls were even raped during such excursions came voluntarily from Safit Perdede, a local leader in Pancasila Youth.
“If they are pretty, I’d rape them all,” Safit boasted to his friends prior to the reenactment film shoot, “especially back then when we were the law. Fuck ‘em. Fuck the shit everyone I meet…especially if you get one who is 14 years old. Delicious! I’d say, it is going to be hell for you, but heaven on earth for me.”
Indonesia’s paramilitary groups such as Pancasila Youth are hardly the shining beacons of morality, righteousness, and discipline. Marzuki, a member of the North Sumatra parliament and who himself is a Pancasila Youth member, freely admitted in the documentary that Pancasila Youth are involved in illegal activities such as gambling and night clubs (both illegal in a religious Muslim country like Indonesia), as well as smuggling and extortion.
From the documentary, we learn that Pancasila Youth openly committed extortion and intimidation. We witness, for instance, Haji Hanif, a wealthy businessman and a Pancasila Youth leader, admitting indirectly to the film crew that his recently acquired land, which he had converted into a nature park, was obtained through intimidation of previous land owners by using Pancasila Youth.
We also witness Safit Perdede (who had earlier boasted of raping even girls) leading the film crew into a local market as he collected protection money from several Chinese traders. In one scene, we witness a trembling Chinese trader handing over to Safit ever increasing Rupiah denomination notes until Safit was satisfied with the amount. Safit even had the gall to ask another of his other victims if the protection fee was given out of the victim’s sincerity.
From the documentary, we learn that democracy and freedom of expression are growing in Indonesia today. But we also learn that some Pancasila Youth leaders and government officials are unhappy over this new development. They attribute the rise of free speech in Indonesia as the actions by the children of the slain communists – without realizing the contradiction in labeling these democracy advocates as communists.
From the documentary, we finally learn about Anwar’s own admission that the communists were not as bad or cruel as that portrayed in government propaganda films and in his own reenactment scenes in “The Act of Killing”.
I am no communist sympathizer. As mentioned earlier, Malaysia too had its share of violent atrocities committed by the communists within the country. But watching “The Act of Killing” disturbed me. In its fight against communism, Indonesia had chosen a path that involved anarchy, mass killings, witch hunts, and vigilante killings. Indonesia had chosen to outsource the fight to corrupt and inhumane paramilitary groups and gangsters.
Of those Indonesians identified and killed (some figures say between half to 2.5 million killed) I wonder how many of them were actually communists and, even if they were, ought to have been killed.