The 1965-1966 killings
The Newsletter | No.61 | Autumn 2012
The study of the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia, and for that matter the study of the country’s politics more generally, will never be the same again with the recent release of the documentary film The Act of Killing (21 August 2012, Toronto International Film Festival), directed by Joshua Oppenheimer with co-director Christine Cynn. The film’s protagonists are leading figures in the local paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila [Pancasila Youth], who were responsible for the killings of hundreds of real or suspected communists in North Sumatera in 1965-1966, as part of a nationwide program that took approximately one million lives.
Although testimonies and published analyses of the event have slowly emerged, it is one of those topics that most people have some knowledge about, but prefer not to discuss even in private.
The result of seven years of hard work, involving many hundreds of hours of footage, the documentary radically challenges some of the old and familiar assumptions in the study of politics and violence. It also demonstrates an ingenious method of documentary filmmaking that will be of special interest to students of media studies, history, visual ethnography, and the anthropology of media.
Undoubtedly, human rights activists and institutions will have a deep interest in the way this film penetrates the entrenched impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of one of the worst massacres in modern history. Some of the leaders of the groups responsible for the massacre still hold government offices at local and national levels today.
All currently existing films with a focus on the 1965 killings and [their] aftermath (as distinct from those that present the same events only in the background of their story)2 are dedicated to giving a voice to the survivors and members of their families, occasionally with sympathetic comments from experts. These films have broken the general onscreen silence that has lasted for over a quarter of a century. To my knowledge, a total of 16 such documentaries have been produced, most of them in small circles, by individual survivors,3 local non-governmental organisations4 and filmmakers,5 in addition to three titles by foreign filmmakers.6
All these documentaries show the ordeals of the victims and the various forms of their victimisation. Made with low budgets and very basic technology, most of these locally produced documentaries feature talking heads from among the survivors and eye-witnesses. Frail and aged-looking women appear in many of these films, speaking emotionally about their endless agony and presenting their condemnations against the past injustice and the continued failure on the part of the successive governments to acknowledge it.7
Individually and collectively, those films have merits of their own, and their importance to the fledgling efforts to unearth the buried history cannot be over-emphasised. However, due to their limited circulation, but also to the successful anti-communist propaganda that has been deeply embedded and normalised in the public consciousness since 1966, these documentaries have yet to make any significant impact in public. For now, their impact is certainly too limited to undermine the New Order propaganda. These previous films presented a counter-claim that boldly reversed the positions of good versus evil that were firmly implanted in the nation’s history by successive governments and their supporters, best exemplified in the nearly four-and-a-half-hour anti-communist state-produced film entitled Pengkhianatan G 30 September (1984).
However, a reversal of this kind only reproduces, and does not eliminate or problematise, the fundamental framework of a good versus evil dichotomy that structures the government propaganda and public imagination. While giving voice to the silenced victims, the perpetrators of the 1965-1966 killings did not appear in these alternative films. In government sponsored propaganda and off-screen statements, whenever these perpetrators (or their sponsors and supporters) speak of the events, their statements consist mainly of denials along with the frequent placing of blame on the victims.
In remarkable contrast, The Act of Killing is fascinating as much as disturbing for its radical subversion of the prevailing paradigm, in that it presents a narrative of the killings in a complex story, with multi-layered sub-narratives, rich with ironies and contradictions. An adequate discussion of the significance and problematics that this film brings to the fore is far beyond the scope of this brief article. Here I can only mention in the simplest terms some of the most obvious aspects that will have immediate impact for our current scholarship on the issue.
The Act of Killing graphically visualizes acts of violence that make the horrors in the previous documentaries (allusions to anti-communist captors, torturers, rapists), as well as in Pengkhianatan G 30 September (the evils of an allegedly communist-backed movement against six rightist generals and one lieutenant on the eve of 1 October 1965) pale into insignificance. In this respect, The Act of Killing incriminates the perpetrators of the 1965-1966 killings more seriously than any of the preceding films have done. But this new documentary goes much further than simply validating or reinforcing the survivors’ allegations about the cruelty of the military-orchestrated anti-communist pogrom.
Instead of submitting new ‘facts’ or a set of serious ‘evidence’ about the crimes against humanity in 1965-1966, The Act of Killing presents an abundance of extravagantly-styled self-incriminations by the 1965 executioners themselves, as they speak proudly to the camera about how they pushed their cruelty to the extreme when killing the communists and members of their families, and raping their female targets, including children. In front of the camera, they go on to demonstrate step-by-step how they carried out the killings at the original sites of their actions in 1965, thus making the survivors’ allegations of their crimes redundant. The Act of Killing exposes in a most obscene fashion what the successive Indonesian governments since 1966 have erased from official history and government pronouncements.
More than one of the perpetrators in this film observes perceptively that ‘their’ film will outdo the government’s infamous Pengkhianatan G 30 September in portraying scenes of horrendous violence. They remark that the general public is utterly wrong to assume (in line with New Order government propaganda) that the Communists are cruel or brutal; “We are crueler and more brutal than the Communists”, they claim. They elaborate what they mean in great detail, both through words and re-enactments on camera. The film contains some of the most violent scenes and language I have seen or heard, on or off screen, from or on Indonesia.
Viewers need to have a strong stomach to watch this film.
However, violent scenes and perverted language are only a part of the image that this film presents. The Act of Killing is unusual in the series of documentaries on the theme to date; it is the first long film on the 1965-1966 killings to feature the perpetrators, instead of the survivors or their sympathisers, as the main characters. This is only possible with the consent of those individual executioners, especially as they appear without their identities being concealed.
They recollect their own crimes, most of the time laughing, singing and dancing, and only occasionally with remorse and reported nightmares.
Three closely-related sets of questions came up in my mind when I first saw two earlier and shorter versions of the film in 2010 and 2011. Some clues began to dawn on me after watching the final and longer version in 2012, and after having further conversations with Oppenheimer, the director.
JAKARTA, Oct 27 2012 (IPS) – If the caste system existed in Indonesia the 10 elderly people who live in Jakarta’s Kramat Street would surely be untouchables: for decades they and their families have been banned from jobs and access to education and, until 2005, their identity cards marked them as former political prisoners. They are survivors of the 1965-66 military crackdown on the now outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), during which time between 500,000 and three million people were massacred and thousands tortured and imprisoned without trial: here.