Review of the documentary The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer is a documentary film that narrates the genocide of millions of communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese in the Sukarno regime in Indonesia in 1965-66. The film is narrated first hand by the perpetrators of the massacres, gangsters and paramilitaries who rose to power with the task of exterminating communists in Indonesia and every suspicious element that threatened the regime. The extermination was systematic, done in a ruthlessly and sadistically manner taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, which is estimated amounted to around a million murders.

The Act of Killing official trailer

The movie is starred by Anwar Congo a paramilitary member of the Pancasila political party. He was one of the most ruthless executioners during the killings claiming to have killed more than a 1,000 people by his own hand. In the movie Cong depicts his various methods of killing like, beating, beheading, running people over with a car, throwing people over a bridge, stabbing, and his favourite strangulating with a wire. Although there is no use of archive footage of the killings the depictions are so graphic that can upset anyone with their sadistic and bloody nature.

Is this movie for real?

It is hard to believe that human beings can go so far in terms of violence, cruelty and blood-thirst. Most of the murder descriptions where narrated so naturally that it is testimony of the strong justification these people had behind that lead them to commit them. The perpetrators and the political regime in Indonesia in the 60’s and still today, firmly believe that communism is evil and that it has to be exterminated by all means. The Indonesian government ever since has been focusing in propaganda demonising everything that can be against the regime’s ideology and values. This has perpetuated a dominant political class that has maintained its power through violence and intimidation. After seeing this documentary my conclusion is that there is no democracy in Indonesia since 1965 and that the ruling class only method of maintaining it’s power is through violence. They have completely destroyed the intelectual class and opposition through political prosecution, using the media as a weapon to demonise them and exclude them from society. The dominant class has maintained its power by the use of brute force and the support of paramilitary groups, gangsters and criminals willing to do whatever it takes to be on power. The Pancasila movement which is the equivalent of the SA in Nazi Germany firmly believes that communism is completely against freedom and that it needs to be exterminated as well as Chinese the same way Jewish were persecuted in WWII. The Pancasila has gained its power through the support of criminal organisations which are the groups that control the population in depth, since they are members of society.

A state of anarchy

“Thugs want freedom to do things, even if they’re wrong, but if we know how to work with them, all we have to do is direct them”

Syamsul Arifin, Governor of Northern Sumatra

It is thought in Indonesia that the word ‘gangster’ comes from the English “fee men” which is a completely false believe. In one of the scenes the Governor of North Sumatra, one of the most important leading authorities in Indonesia affirms the importance of gangsters in Indonesia’s stability.

jusuf kalla act of killing pancasila rally
Jusuf Kalla in a Pancasila Movement Meeting

Below is part of a speech given by Jusuf Kalla in the film, Kalla is ex-vice-president of Indonesia during a Pancasilla meeting and this is what he had to say about gangsters.

“Gangsters are people who work outside the system not for the government. The word ‘gangster’ means free men. This nation needs ‘free men’! If everyone worked for the government we’d be a nation of bureaucrats. We’d get nothing done. We need gangsters to get things done. Free, private men that get things done.We need gangsters who are willing to take risks in business. Use their muscles! Muscles aren’t for beating people up, although beating people up is sometimes needed ”

Jusuf Kalla, Vice-President of Indonensia (2004-2009)

This is a testimony of the current anarchy present in Indonesia where high government officials praise criminal organisations as necessaries for society to run properly. From this perspective normal citizens have very little guarantees to their rights since outside of the law organisations have been allowed to enforce their power freely. This is a clear sign of a state of total anarchy where the government has allied with criminal organisations outside the law to enforce and perpetuate its power.

If you can’t with your enemy join them

In developing nations creating a state of military and police authority to control society can be very difficult, that is why in many developing nation regimes governments have been overthrown by relatively small rebel groups, such as it happened in Indonesia in Sukarno’s government, and has happened in hundreds of nations. The lack of economic resources, technology and military development makes the state vulnerable from crime and corruption, therefore criminal organisations can easily gain power and control of society. In Indonesia it seems that the government has decided not to fight criminal organisations, but to use them as an ally to maintain its power and in return the government has allowed this criminal organisations to maintain a level of control and power in society. These criminal organisations have risen as paramilitary group in parallel to the Indonesian military and police, and the government has figured out a way to make them work together. The problem with this is that paramilitaries operate outside the law, permitting them to commit abuse, which is seen in the movie when a paramilitary leader goes to a local market and asks the shop owners for money.

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A thin line between crime and justice

The Act of Killing focuses on a place in the world with a particular sense of injustice and violation to human rights. Many viewers including me might have changed the way they viewed Indonesia after watching the film. I can understand the situation and how society justifies violence as a way to ensure its interests. Violence regimes find their way to perpetuate and maintain their power. Genocide has always been a fundamental part of society, from the Alexandrian campaigns in Persia to the extermination of the American Indians in North America. From the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the killings of civilians in the Iraq War. Nobody has been trialled in the International Court of Justice for those genocides. The same as in the genocide in Indonesia, all the executioners are free and today are considered national heroes.

“‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition. I needn’t follow the international definitions.”

Adi Zulkadry, executioner in 1965