act of killing

Art & Culture

Once in a while, I see a film which is so extraordinary and unique that you sit watching it with mouth metaphorically open, wondering how you can ever explain to everyone you know, that they really should watch this film. It happened with Nostalgia For The Light last year. Now it’s happened again.

Joshua Oppenheimer is not a name I was familiar with. He is now. He has ventured into the lion’s den of Indonesian corruption and violence, and emerged leading a meek and humbled beast by the nose. Let me try to make sense of what I’m talking about.

In 1965 there was a military coup in Indonesia that overthrew the civilian government. It happened a lot in those days and was nearly always backed by the American government (as it was in this case) because of their fear of Communism, or indeed any government that was a) elected by popular vote and b) therefore dared to question American hegemony.

After the coup came the slaughter. Something like a million people – called Communists by their murderers, though many were just people who didn’t like military dictatorship – lost their lives. The killers were self-anointed gangsters, a name which seems to have no pejorative qualities in that part of the world. According to them the word gangster means free man, and their gangsters are and have been free to do what they want. Which is why, 40 years later, the men who killed so many Indonesians, are alive and well, and full of a sense of pride for what they did. They regard themselves as saviours of the state, and the state sees things the same way.

When Oppenheimer arrived to make a documentary, he found a number of these ageing gangsters still lording it around town, wealthy and admired (at least to their faces). He suggested making a film about what happened, and they were only too pleased to help. They didn’t understand what a documentary was. Their film education consisted of watching American gangster movies, and in fact, one of their main complaints against the so-called Communists was that they wanted less American films to be shown. They made their money as ticket scalpers outside cinemas, and didn’t want their business disrupted.

For them, a film involves dressing up in costumes and putting on make up, and reenacting their deeds. Without qualms, without shame, without inhibition. They are helped in this adventure by one of paramilitary organisations that flourish in Indonesia (this one has 3 million members), but mainly it is the enthusiasm of the improbably named Anwar Congo that makes things happen. Congo is an unlikely looking villain. At first sight, he might be mistaken for Nelson Mandela’s younger brother. He looks like a nice old bloke who you would love to meet. And in some ways he is. But he is also responsible for the murders of at least 1000 people himself, using his preferred method of garrotting them with a length of wire.

It is this willingness to demonstrate exactly what they did, and talk about it with so openly and cheerfully that is one of the many aspects of what makes the film so extraordinary. Oppenheimer has captured the essence of a society by focusing on a few individuals, but he has also created a portrait of men which verges on the surreal, though that is not really the right term. Incredible is better, if you take it as its literal meaning. Beyond belief.

I don’t know if I’ve done enough to make you want to watch the film. For the squeamish among you, there is no actual real life violence, just the reenactment of it that is in its own way equally disturbing. But I do urge you to make every effort to see a documentary about a country where it was thought necessary to conceal the names of everyone within Indonesia who worked on the film, for fear that they would be punished as a result.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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