Wearing white trousers and a garish green shirt, Anwar Congo does the cha-cha-cha across a roof terrace in Medan, Indonesia, after explaining how dancing, drink and drugs have failed to numb his pain. It’s a disconcerting sight. This is the man who, moments before, has carefully demonstrated how he used wire to strangle hundreds of suspected communists, trade unionists and others deemed undesirable. Beating them to death, he says, produced too much blood.
It is the first of many such painstaking, gruesome reconstructions in The Act of Killing, a shocking, brilliant documentary that has just won the Special Jury Award at the UK’s Sheffield Documentary Festival. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, it shines light on one of the 20th-century’s least-known genocides.
Between 500,000 and 2m people were massacred across Indonesia in 1965-1966 as General Suharto used an abortive putsch by left-leaning army officers to justify an unrelenting campaign to wipe out Indonesia’s communist party, then the largest non-ruling communist party in the world. The killing, orchestrated by the military and carried out by agents of the state, freelance activists and gangsters such as Anwar Congo, was wide and unforgiving in its focus. Many people, especially ethnic Chinese Indonesians, were murdered simply because they were suspected of leftist sympathies.
The massacre – and the insistence that it was necessary to save the young Indonesia from the perils of a communist takeover – became the basis of Suharto’s rise to power and his 32-year dictatorship, which shaped the world’s fourth most populous nation into its modern form. Official discussions of the extent and the viciousness of the killings have long been taboo in Indonesia. Even today, schoolchildren are taught that the communist party had to be eradicated to save the nation.
In the wider world, the Indonesian genocide lacks the notoriety of the Holocaust or Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields. For one thing, the US, the UK and other anti-communist nations supported Suharto’s killings, which were reported in the western press at the time as a good news story. For another, the regime that perpetrated the mass murder stayed in power and won plaudits from international development agencies for driving economic growth.
But, although its core historical content is eye-opening, The Act of Killing is not a run-of-the-mill documentary. Oppenheimer, a dual American and British citizen now based in London, is a proponent of “performance documentary”: the film follows Congo and his murderous acolytes and friends as they try to recreate the killings as if making a film of their own.
This approach, Oppenheimer says, arose from his first encounters with the perpetrators in the city of Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. He was there in the early 2000s to make a film about the nascent trade union movement in Indonesia following the fall of Suharto in 1998. Many people remained scared to join unions because of memories of the massacres.
The film-maker, now 38, soon ran into the killers, who, rather than hiding their crimes, were bragging about them. Appalled yet fascinated, he then spent years winning their trust and filming them. “Anwar was the 41st perpetrator that I filmed,” he says. “All of them were telling me gruesomely about what they did and re-enacting it. Why did they not want to keep them secret?
“It’s not a film about what they did and why. It’s more about why they’re proud and why they’re boasting. It’s more about Indonesia today than Indonesia in 1965.”
That Indonesia – usually portrayed as a thriving emerging market, a model of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, or an exotic holiday destination – is in this film a much darker place. Congo and Herman Koto, his rotund lieutenant with a penchant for cross-dressing, sing and dance their way across North Sumatra, reliving their murders and being courted by the politicians and businessmen who established their elite position on the bloody foundations of Suharto’s rise. The tie that binds them together is Pancasila Youth (PY), one of Indonesia’s biggest paramilitary organisations, which was set up in the late 1950s to fight communism and continues to wield significant influence in politics and business today.
We see Haji Anif, a powerful local tycoon, talking about how he uses the organisation’s members to scare residents off land he wants to buy up cheaply. There is Jusuf Kalla, then vice-president of Indonesia and now a possible presidential candidate in next year’s elections, telling a PY rally that his country needs “gangsters who are willing to take risks in business” and that “beating people up is sometimes needed”. And then there is a deputy youth and sports minister who demurs after participating in the horrific re-enactment of the sacking of a village, saying it is dangerous for the organisation to be seen as so brutal – before, astoundingly, changing his mind in a matter of seconds. “Use it to show how ferocious we can be,” he tells Oppenheimer on camera. “In fact, we can be worse.”
But though the film highlights the dark side of Indonesia – still racked by corruption, communal violence and inequality despite becoming a more open, democratic nation – it is more an examination of how and why people can kill in such great numbers with such impunity. The reconstructions, which become increasingly violent and surreal, are unsettling enough but something more disturbing happens as the film progresses. As Anwar unpeels the layers of bravado that shield his guilt and depression, the chief villain becomes a sympathetic character despite showing little overt remorse.
After watching himself break down while playing the role of a victim in one execution scene shot in film noir style, Congo asks Oppenheimer: “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed and then fear comes right then and there.”
Oppenheimer, who says he has become close to Congo and remains in regular contact, responds in a deadpan manner: “Actually, the people you tortured felt much worse because that was real.”
Later, as Congo grasps for some way to escape his suffering, he tries to convince himself of a common justification for such massacres: “I know it was wrong but we had to do it.” It is a preposterous excuse; yet at this point it is hard not to empathise – however reluctantly – with Congo’s pain. As Oppenheimer’s Indonesian co-director, who wants to stay anonymous for fear of recriminations, says: “I started out with an answer: that we should gather evidence about these killings, bring the perpetrators to trial and pay compensation to the victims. But I ended up with a question, ‘How should we feel about this?’”
It is a question that the Indonesian elite does not want to hear, let alone answer. Despite the country’s transition to democracy since 1998, many political and business leaders are still products of the Suharto era, including at least three of the early contenders for next year’s presidential elections. For this reason, the film-makers have not even tried to get the movie past Indonesia’s censors. There are some signs of hope after nearly 40 years of impunity. Many young Indonesians helped organise more than 500 underground screenings of The Act of Killing in 95 different cities across the archipelago nation.
But, says the Indonesian co-director glumly, in more than one case, the audience was flooded by members of Pancasila Youth. Rather than expressing outrage at the vicious way their organisation was portrayed, they rejoiced at a movie that they believed would enhance their feared status and help them recruit new members.
Ben Bland is the FT’s Indonesia correspondent
‘The Act of Killing’ is released in UK cinemas on June 28, theactofkilling.com