Disturbing documentary exposes lasting impacts of Indonesian atrocities

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Anwar Congo watches footage of his film with his two grandsons.
Drafthouse Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Indonesia, home to more than 238 million people living across 17,508 islands, will soon hold new presidential elections. The surprise entry of the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, launched him into the position as front-runner for the July polls.

The young democracy will have only its third direct election since the end of the 31 year rule of Haji Suharto, in 1998. While there are many factors at play, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in a period between 1965 and 1966 still lingers. Unlike other mass killings, the perpetrators won out and are still in power.

The Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing follows some of the men who committed countless executions during the same period. One of these men, Anwar Congo, is held up as a local hero in his hometown located in North Sumatra. He is an outwardly triumphant figure that went from selling movie tickets to killing, so he claims, more than 1,000 people.

In the start of the film, Congo leads director Joshua Oppenheimer to the roof of a building where many people were killed. He carefully explains that more crude methods were used to kill suspected Communists, but the blood was too much to handle. A simpler and less messy solution was devised that involved tying a wire to a pole and using it as a counter-force to strangle people to death.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer's film about Indonesia's 1965 death squads
Drafthouse Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Congo demonstrates the way that the executions were carried out, for the camera. He then goes on to demonstrate it on himself and describes how he and his friends would then go out to drink and dance. The description gives way to an eerie moment when Congo begins dancing. It became apparent that the burden felt by a man who was a celebrated hero and haunted by his actions was taking its toll.

“There is a moment when Anwar steps on the roof at the start and lets out a big sigh,” said Oppenheimer to Humanosphere. “He’s swinging more and more wildly between celebration and trauma.”

It was the first time the cracks were showing so clearly in a person that Oppenheimer had met. The filmmaker had spent years looking at the lasting impacts of the victims of the atrocities. It soon became apparent that he could not tell their stories and ensure that they remain safe. The Indonesian government did not distance itself from its brutal past and the perpetrators of the violence walked free.

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The victims instead encouraged Oppenheimer to speak with the people who committed the crimes. He did so, finding that many were candid, but it was Congo who appeared to greatly struggle with what he did. So Oppenheimer made a proposal, he would provide help to Congo so that he could re-create the executions as long as he could keep filming what happens in-between.

“I thought the facade of heroism would crumble when showing what happened,” explained Oppenheimer.

Congo and his friends are all big fans of American cinema and agreed to do so. What follows is a film about making a film that does not matter. What Congo creates is secondary to the conversations he has with the men he collaborated with to slaughter suspected Communists and the problems that surface as he is forced to consider what he did in those few months. The style of Oppenheimer is intentional. He believes that truths come forward when people project the image they want others to see of themselves.

A filmed reenactment of Indonesia's mass killings, as remembered by Congo.
A filmed reenactment of Indonesia’s mass killings, as remembered by Congo.
Drafthouse Films/courtesy Everett Collection

“We were getting something so much closer to performance than we were to the sober testimony,” said Oppenheimer about his initial interviews. “The moment people start staging themselves to the camera you suddenly see the myriad interlocking constituting realities.”

Congo confides to former fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry that he is plagued by nightmares of the ghosts of the people he killed. Zulkadry advises Congo to seek assistance of a psychiatrist, but is unwilling to engage in the guilt that is consuming Congo. At one point during the filming, in a scene where Congo plays a Communist being questioned and subsequently strangled, he cannot muster the energy to act. Congo sits nearly lifeless as the totality of his actions are laid before him.

Congo was a member of the paramilitary group called the Pancasila Youth. The group of gangsters that ran the death squads during Suharto’s military coup are still brazenly active in Indonesia. Leader Yapoto Soerjosemarno is seen in the film parading around like a military hero only to be undermined by his misogynistic comments on the golf course and at an official event.

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Vice President of Indonesia Jusuf Kalla is seen in the film attending a Pancasila rally. Other members of the national parliament pal around with the paramilitary leaders and Congo. There are even some rousing remarks from the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport during the filming of the scene reenacting the brutal attack on an area village. People there speak easily about carrying out rape and other atrocities, as if it were an average conversation over drinks with friends.

Oppenheimer’s movie has won many important awards, but fell short at the Oscars this past month. The film has made waves in American press, but Joe Cochrane of the New York Times reports that the changes are not being felt in Indonesia. An Indonesian director who Oppenheimer says was integral to the making is not credited due to concerns for his/her safety. The same goes for the multitudes of Indonesians who worked on the film and are listed as ‘Anonymous’ in the credits.

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Calls for a criminal inquiry into the crimes committed during the Suharto regime, by the country’s independent National Commission on Human Rights, have not worked. However, Oppenheimer is more optimist. He screened the film to US lawmakers in January, leading some to raise the need for the US to investigate how its support of Indonesia contributed to the crimes.

“War crimes are defined by the winner. I am the winner. So I define it,” says Zulkadry in the film when Oppenheimer confronts him about the possibility of being arrested and tried for war crimes.

For now, it is the perpetrators that get to determine the truth in Indonesia. They are not boasting as much as they used to, says Oppenheimer, but there is still a long way to go.

“Invariably the moral standards are double standards because it is the winners that get to define the reality,” said Oppenheimer.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.