Cidarth Sajith, Research Intern, ICS
The 2012 documentary ‘The Act of Killing’, in which the perpetrators of the 1965 anti-communist purge of Indonesia, re-enact and dramatize their killings is not only held by many as an audacious documentary that oversteps into the obscene due to the very gleefulness with which the protagonists oblige, but also draws consternation over the impunity and reverence with which they are held. Nevertheless, it earned an Oscar nomination and subsequently managed to reignite the debates over Indonesia’s denial and reluctant embrace of its past. But, what makes the documentary truly fascinating and relevant is how it captures the unravelling psychosis of its protagonists, their fractured realities and most importantly, what art and theatre portend for societies reeling under trauma and supressed memories.
The documentary follows Anwar Congo who along with his fellow ‘gangsters’ (or ‘free men’ as they themselves define it) engage in the dramatization of their so-called heroic pasts, and recounts their tales of violence and brutality. Men, who once lived by scalping movie tickets (as Hollywood was boycotted back then, during Sukarno’s rule), turned into vigilantes when Sukarno’s socialist ‘Nasakom’ coalition collapsed, spearheading the communist purge that followed General Suharto’s coup, and perhaps due to their ingenuity or sheer capacity for violence, have now become figures courted by prominent sections of Indonesian society – including politicians, paramilitary groups and media. Reverence and praise fatten our protagonists and help mask their numbness. Boastful assertions reaffirm their vigilante past, upon the historicity of which Indonesia’s current political edifice rests.
The film, exposing the thin veneer of such normality, captures many sides of our banal protagonists and causes the viewer, what can best be described as a sense of dissonance. One such instance in the film, is when Anwar, compelled by the conviviality of the family gathering, re-enacts his dreaded raid on the ‘communists’. Anwar calls for volunteers for the re-enactment, some of his nieces and grandchildren enthusiastically raise their hands and are assigned as the children of the communists, his trusted neighbour and long-time friend, the meek and awkward Suryono is prodded to play the role of a fellow vigilante. Their performance ensues – the antics of these old men throw their audience into fits of laughter, shoving, heaving and waling of children follow. Suryono’s performance almost outdoes Anwar’s. They qualify for a long drawn applause, but the children are unable to restrain their sobbing, their act ‘spills overs’, later, a proud protagonist is seen to embrace and comfort them.
The documentary also captures the quaint association of mass violence with consumerism. One such instance in the film is when a businessman, a former gangster himself, attempting to define the ‘happy life’ (a term that all our protagonists repeatedly employ in defining themselves) ends up showcasing his huge array of crystal collection (including flowers and Disney figurines). He also alludes to procuring the support of the ‘Pancasila’ vigilante group that holds our protagonists as iconic figureheads. The same capacity that enables mass violence also enables our consumerist identities and the latter is surprisingly resilient. Sublimated, it is only released with the fraying of our political order.
The reliving that dramatization allows explains the ease with which the protagonists switch from the portrayal of victim to perpetrator and a telling case in the documentary is when Suryono, the aforementioned neighbour of Anwar’s, is given a role in our gangsters’ dramatization, replete with stage, props and camera. Anwar, himself the director, recounts stories and sordid details in order to extract convincing performances from his actors. Amidst such a scene, an interrogation, Suryono breaks script but without breaking character, grits and nictates into a trance to drool a teary confession- about that traumatic night, a family awakened by the jolting door, their patriarch whisked away, with no whereabouts or return until a corpse – like the cadaver of a butchered goat as Suryono describes it – is found on the street. Subsequently, what starts as a conversation to justify themselves and console his beloved neighbour, ends up with the ‘free men’ almost becoming confrontational with each other about their roles.
The documentary does not only capture the negotiation of supressed selves, or a notion of evil; banal yet pervasive or our capacity for violence endowed in the politico-economic order, or even how art and theatre facilitates transcendence akin to what religion does. Most importantly, it also shows how societies can heal.
The film concludes with Anwar taking us to a desolate spot near the outskirts of Medan, one of his many killing spots, confessing what he realised amidst one of his dramatizations – the eye, transmogrified onto a creature that looms over him in his frequent nightmares, belonged to one of the dying victims, hacked at this very spot. The movie ends with Anwar turning away from the camera, propping himself over a wall, retching.
‘The Act of Killing’ released in Bahasa as ‘Jagal’ (meaning ‘butcher’ in English) was Indonesia’s official entry for the 2014 Oscars. The second part of the anthology, ‘The Look of Silence’, equally evocative, continues this theme.
 Sukarno’s Nasakom coalition comprising of religious groups, military and communists, fractured with his leftist turn ostensibly at the behest of the PKI or the Communist Party of Indonesia. Subsequently, landless famers, union members and mainly, ethnic Chinese were branded as ‘communists’.