‘The Act of Killing’ is by far the most overwhelming film I have ever seen. It was recommended to me by the lecturers in my International Journalism Master's as an example of a documentary film in which the unexpected form, re-enactment, is exceptionally well chosen. It is, but the film hit me mostly because of its content. All the violence was re-enacted, but revealed a shocking truth.
The film is about ‘gangs’ (they call themselves that, proudly) in Indonesia that carried out massacres of ‘communists’ in 1965 and 1966. The victims were supposedly members of the communist party, but most of the at least one million deaths were ordinary citizens who were suspected of having leftist sympathies or of being atheists, or they were ethnic Chinese or other minority groups. The maker of the film, Joshua Oppenheimer, initially wanted to make a documentary about the victims. The Indonesian government didn’t give permission for that and instead proposed to talk to the perpetrators, the ‘heroes’. Oppenheimer didn’t like the idea, until he met the men and the idea emerged to re-enact the massacres. The men, fond of westerns, were all into being the main characters in a film about death and slaughter.
What happens next is disconcerting. Both the men and villagers play the victims and because the ‘gangs’ still have a lot of power in their communities, nobody dares to refuse. People sit on chairs, are being tied and ‘strangled’, the ‘gangs’ often laughing while remembering but the ‘victims’ with fear in their eyes and sometimes heavily sobbing and begging for mercy. Meanwhile, the men reflect on their deeds. Which were justified, because the crimes of the communists were of such unspeakable cruelty that not acting against it was just not an option.
The youngest school children
But this unspeakable cruelty of the Indonesian ‘communists’ didn’t even exist. That a large part of the population thought differently was caused, among other things, by a film that the Indonesian authorities had made and that showed the ‘communist cruelties’. That film, Oppenheimer explains in this interview (which also sheds a not so surprising light on the origins of those ‘gangs’, dear fellow Dutch folks), was forced down Indonesians’ throats year in, year out and watching it was obligatory, even for the youngest school children.
Okay, propaganda, that’s nothing new, but in ‘The Act of Killing’ something remarkable happens. The murderers know very well that the ‘communists’ were not guilty of any atrocities but only during the recording of the film it appears to fully hit them that they themselves were the barbarians. One perpetrator, a garroting wire around his neck, almost chokes in that realization.
The parallel with Turkey and Kurdistan can of course quickly be drawn. For decades already the Turkish state has shoved propaganda about the PKK down its citizens’ throats and accuses the group of the most horrific crimes. The army can’t not act. But the barbarian, that’s the state itself. The crimes against humanity are carried out by the Turkish army. The state knows it, the officers who torture, (mass) murder and desecrate bodies, know it because they do it, but maybe they too don’t fully apprehend. Maybe it’s too big. You would choke in the vomit you spew in self-aversion.
Space shuttles, banks and weapons
The crux in the total reversal of the truth is hidden in the fact that the masterminds and the executers of the mass murders remained in power, enabling them to firmly screw the lies deeper into the brain of their citizens and their own brain for almost half a century. There too the resemblance with Turkey is striking.
But as a European human I cannot avoid enlarging this reality. Not only because the Netherlands played a role in the massacres in ‘The Act of Killing’ (more info in the film and interview) but also because in a global perspective we, white western societies, are in the same position of power as the Indonesian ‘gangs’ and the Turkish army. Our power is based on nothing more than the fact that we, as James Baldwin eloquently explains in a few sentences, have ‘space shuttles, banks, and weapons’. This power has enabled us to dictate the narrative not of decades but of centuries. The grotesque mendacity of that narrative, in which we are the developed, superior ones, the civilized, is proportional to the barbarianism that needs to be obscured – colonialism, slavery, the wiping out of indigenous peoples, the looting of entire continents, continuing to this very day.
Still less my child
Listen to how Baldwin continues: ‘What you don’t have anymore, is me. I, the slave. I, the black cat who believed everything you said, once. Nothing you can do will ever persuade me, still less my child, that I am worth less than you. In the eyes of heaven or in the eyes of earth. This is over. I have dealt with you for a very long time. Now you have to deal with me. And I came to stay. You understand me?’
Those who suffer from our crimes have been seeing through our lies for a long time, very clearly. Just like the ‘communists’ in Indonesia saw through the lies of the ‘gangs’ and the Kurds see through the lies of the Turkish state. In ‘The Act of Killing’ it takes a re-enactment to open the perpetrators’ eyes to the shocking truth. What does it take for us? Is it possible at all to dismantle such a long, deeply rooted lie?
Do you feel it in your throat already? Are you close to vomiting? I am.
The Dutch version of this blog post was published on Frontaal Naakt.