U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History, Memory, and THE ACT OF KILLING

Last week, the nominees for this year’s Oscars were announced. Among all the hoopla that comes with the announcements of the major award nominees, this is also one of the moments in the year when the most attention is given to documentary films…though the Oscars’ Best Documentary Feature category is as famous for its snubs as its nominees.[1] As the Oscar nominations approached, a running battle over the documentary Blackfish–which indicts Seaworld for its treatment of orcas and its apparent cover-ups of the dangers posed by Tilikum, a male orca who has been linked to the deaths of three people during his time in captivity—came to a head, as Seaworld, perhaps anticipating more bad publicity following an Academy Award nomination for the film, appeared to increase its countermessaging.  But, in the end, Blackfish became one of this year’s most notably snubs, along with Sarah Polley’s well-regarded autobiographical film The Stories We Tell.

Among the films that did get nominations one of the most acclaimed is The Act of Killing. It’s also a film that, at least on its face, might be of interest to readers of this blog.  American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer became interested in the mass killings of communists (and Chinese and others who might be easily accused of communism) that took place in Indonesia in the year following the coup that brought Suharto to power in 1965.  In 2005, Oppenheimer approached Anwar Congo, a self-described gangster who had helped lead the killings in his city of Medan on the island of Sumatra and convinced him to work on a narrative film that would depict the killings in any way that Anwar and some of his fellow perpetrators desired. The Act of Killing is a film about this odd and disturbing act of filmmaking.  Oppenheimer’s documentary has been widely praised and has been described by Errol Morris, who along with Werner Herzog became an Executive Producer of the film during its editing stages, as “an examination of the nature of memory and of history.” Sounds like our kind of thing, I thought. And, as luck would have it, in addition to being nominated for an Oscar last week, The Act of Killing premiered on Netflix streaming, making it much more easily available to me (and I suspect many of you).  Follow me below the fold for my thoughts on history, memory, and The Act of Killing.

Oppenheimer’s film deserves much of the praise that it has received.  Spending a couple hours in the company of Anwar Congo and his friends and fellow mass murderers is deeply disturbing, but fascinating. Oppenheimer’s rather bizarre method of getting them to grapple with their pasts ultimately pays off.  Anwar and the other gangsters-turned-filmmakers stage reenactments of the burning of a village and of individual scenes of torture and murder (one featuring a child of an actual victim playing the victim, another featuring Anwar himself as the beaten and eventually garroted communist), as well as a surreal musical number featuring the song “Born Free.”  And by the film’s end, Anwar’s own stories about his past appear to have awakened some sense of guilt in him….though we’ve seen so much playacting coming from Anwar and the film’s other subjects that the possibility remains open that this, too, is just more performance for Oppenheimer’s camera.

Quite clearly this is a film about memory and the weight of the past.  But The Act of Killing focuses almost entirely on literal memory, on the way that people actually involved in past events remember, narrate, and re-narrate them.   This is psychologically fascinating. Oppenheimer is well aware that such memory and narration is affected by the broader social context in which it takes place. And in this case, that is a context that basically celebrates the actions of Anwar and his fellow killers.  These are the winners in Indonesian history. And they remained so even following the 1998 resignation of Suharto and the enactment of reforms that have taken place since then.

But while Oppenheimer clearly thinks this context is worth noting, it is just sketched in this film.  We see Anwar and his fellow murderers being praised by current government officials. The orange-clad Pemuda Pancasila, a right-wing paramilitary group that was involved in the 1965-66 murders and that remains a major force in Indonesian life and politics, simultaneously denies that it is a gangster organization and celebrates gangsters, noting (as many do throughout the film) that the Indonesian word for gangster comes from the English “free men.”  In addition to presenting official and semi-official celebration of gangsters, Oppenheimer shows us that gangster-led corruption remains endemic in Medan and much of the population remains in fear of the film’s subjects.  All of this provides important context for the gangsters’ acts of memory.

Yet what we don’t receive in any sustained way is an overall sense of the official public memory of the 1965-66 killings. We get hints of this public memory – snitches of conversation among the gangsters indicating that their frankness in their film runs counter to the official stories; a tv talk show on which the gangsters appear that, in contrast, seems very comfortable with their proposed film and the stories it tells; a persistent ambivalence about the brutality, cruelty, and sadism of the killings from not only the gangsters, but also other figures who appear briefly – but these are only hints. One is left with the impression that, in Indonesian public culture, the killings are not denied, but they are not exactly spoken about. That the purported result of the killings – the elimination of communism – is celebrated and the actions of those, like Anwar Congo, who brought about that result are accepted, but that the details of these actions are somehow denied. But all these things are just impressions.

Oppenheimer has been very explicit about the fact that he does not intend his film to tell the story of the 1965-66 killings themselves:  “the film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced and celebrated – in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves.”  But, in fact, I don’t think the film is about this regime … though it’s clearly set within that regime.  The film is about the burden of individual memory and the psychology of perpetrators.  But institutions, and what Oppenheimer properly describes in interviews as Indonesia’s “regime of terror,” are not simply the sum of individuals like Anwar Congo, although he is certainly part of such a regime. Exploring individual perpetrator memory as The Act of Killing does is a valuable exercise that certainly might provide an important piece of many larger puzzles. But it is only a piece of these puzzles.

The Act of Killing has already been frequently compared to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Usually the comparison is made via Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil,” and Oppenheimer’s portrait of Anwar Congo certainly has a fair bit of this in it.  But a deeper similarity, I think, is Oppenheimer’s apparent attempt to read Anwar Congo as a kind of microcosm of his regime.  Arendt’s desire to see Eichmann in this way flowed from two facts, one theoretical, the other practical.  Theoretically, Arendt had long been committed to an understanding of totalitarianism as both reflecting and generative of a new kind of empty and atomized person.  Totalitarianism was like an onion; it had no core….only layer upon layer of Arendt’s version of last men, who might each, in this way, stand for the regime itself.  Practically, Nazism as a regime was dead and buried by the time Eichmann went on trial.  Living Nazis were as close as we could get to experiencing Nazism itself in the flesh.  In contrast, as Oppenheimer’s film makes clear in passing, the Indonesian regime that produced Anwar Congo is still alive, even if somewhat reformed.  If we want to study that regime, we could do so directly.

Some of the problems with allowing the gangsters who star in The Act of Killing to stand in for the Indonesian regime as a whole are illustrated by a piece that the documentary filmmaker and essayist Errol Morris, one of the film’s executive producers and a great admirer of it, wrote last summer for Slate.  Morris, like Oppenheimer, thinks that The Act of Killing is an exploration of the relationship between memory and history.  But rather than exploring the film in depth, Morris spends most of his essay considering what the events in Indonesia in 1965-66 meant – and might have meant – for the United States, which was very much aware of the killings, welcomed them as a blow to communism, and aided the killers. Morris recalls that Indonesia had had the largest communist party of any non-communist country.  Suharto’s elimination of that party led George Kennan to turn against the Vietnam War, as he felt that Indonesia was no longer a potential “domino” and Vietnam’s strategic importance was thus greatly diminished. LBJ, on the other hand, drew the opposite conclusions:  in his view the successful elimination of communism in Indonesia in 1965-66 indicated that his aggressive stance in the region was working.

But what’s most striking about Morris’s look at American involvement in Indonesia and what events there meant for the U.S. in the 1960s is that none of this is remotely in The Act of Killing.  The United States is only mentioned in the film in connection to its films: the gangsters are all great fans of American movies and self-consciously model their film on American genre pictures and themselves on Pacino, Brando, and so forth.   Indeed, Anwar and his friends got their start in crime scalping tickets to sold-out American movies on the streets of Medan.  Virtually the only concrete criticism of the communists voiced by any of the mass killers in the film involves the communists’ desire to reduce the number of American movies coming to Indonesia: those movies were both the gangsters’ favorite form of entertainment and an important source of income for them.  At any rate, imaginatively multiplying Anwar Congo’s story thousands fold, so that it covers all the other perpetrators across the many islands of Indonesia, will still not get us to an understanding of the ways in which the Indonesian regime of terror related to the larger geopolitical forces without which it would have, at the very least, looked rather different.

For Morris, the relationship between The Act of Killing and his own thoughts about American and Indonesia is more analogic:

Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing opens with questions about historical amnesia. Is it possible to forget about (or to condone) the deaths of 1 million people? It is much easier for us, probably, to imagine such a thing happening in a developing nation. But what started with a story about Indonesia became for me a story about America. About the deep link between Indonesia, Vietnam, and the United States. And our ability to forget.

But in this analogy, we see a slippage between the literal memories of people like Anwar Congo, and the collective, historical memory of nations.  The Americans who “forget” the story of Indonesia in the 1960s overwhelmingly as individuals never knew that story in the first place.  The collective memories (and forgettings) that Morris writes about in this passage, while related to the mass killings that Anwar Congo literally remembers, are really of a different order from Anwar Congo’s memories of killing. And it’s at best a sloppy use of language, and at worst a kind of mysticism, to confuse one sort of memory with the other.

The Act of Killing is an unusual and effective exploration of what happens to perpetrators of atrocities when those perpetrators win. It’s also a harrowing look at how the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 played out in one Indonesian city.  It’s certainly an effective documentary, well worth your time, if not exactly an easy cinematic experience. Perhaps it deserves to win an Oscar; perhaps it will win one.  But due in part to the narrowness of its gaze, it’s really not an exploration of the relationship between memory and history.

[1] No more so than this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the most famously snubbed documentary of all, the un-nominated Hoop Dreams (an oral history of which the website The Dissolve just published).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent review, Ben! One thing that few critics have remarked on has to do with the asynchronicity of the way in which memories are mediated through film. These gangsters, including Congo, claim that the American gangster movies were a model for their own behavior. But this is necessarily retrospective self fashioning: these American gangster movies, notably the Godfather one and two and Scarface, all came out in the 1970s or early 80s, 10–15 years after the killings in Indonesia. As I read THE ACT OF KILLING, the function of these films was not as a model for behavior, at least not in the first instance, but rather as a vehicle for retroactively re narrating a political event (the 65-66 politicide) in a way that effectively deracinated the political context.

    • That’s a really good point, Nils! I, too noticed that the particular movie gangsters that they mention are largely from the ’70s and ’80s (which of course doesn’t mean that they didn’t model themselves after earlier movie gangsters at the time). That these later gangsters get mentioned absolutely does suggest re-narrating of a sort. Whether that re-narrating involved de-politicizing a once (subjectively) political series of murders is, I think, more speculative. After all, the politics (or at least ostensible politics) of the killings –eliminating communism — remains more than politically acceptable both to the larger Indonesian political culture and to the gangsters, as far as I could tell. If the gangsters were driven by some sort of political zeal in the ’60s, why invent narratives that move away from that fact? (Again, I’m not saying you’re wrong about the trajectory of re-narration, I’m just saying that, if you’re right, it’s not entirely clear why Anwar Congo and his friends should have done this.)

  2. Agreed that the depoliticizing purpose is probably an interpretive over-reach. But still, it raises huge issues about the way that movies restructure historical memories and personal identities. It’s entirely unclear to me, after watching the movies, whether these guys thought of themselves as gangsters in 1966, or whether that was simply how they have reimagined their role in retrospect, in part using Hollywood movies as a vehicle for doing so, and in part to narrate their current position within their communities.

    More generally, the gangster-communist alterity was pretty mind-blowing. Are those really the only choices?!

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