This week I saw the film “The Act of Killing“, a documentary which captures personal accounts of the period in Indonesia 1965-66, in which over one million communists were systematically murdered by state-sanctioned death squads. The film consists of interviews with men who casually and unapologetically boast their involvement and follows them through the process of re-creating scenes of interrogation, torture, and slaughter, casting themselves as the actors and directing the production. There isn’t a widely coined, capital letter name for this period in Indonesia’s history. It has never been officially recognized as a genocide, and isn’t extensively documented or reported on – especially in “Western” History. Yet, it’s no secret. Mainstream television, politicians, and killers themselves all talk about it plainly and openly, with chilling nonchalance.
The film uses no scenes of actual violence or gore – its frank realism is far more disturbing than the grisly cinematic devices common in today’s media environment. Direct representation allows the full gravity of the experience to sink in. The casual mulling over the swiftest way to kill a person with minimal effort and blood, while strolling through a shopping mall or playing golf, postulating rationalizations to palliate their guilt. “We learned from the movies. American gangster films were my favorite. They kill with style.” A crowd of townspeople playact the bacchanalian ransacking of a town with prop guns and fake blood. Some children are laughing, some are crying, as the ‘director’ shouts – “Cry! Scream! Beg! More energy! Kill!!“ – a man who then sneers and brags to the camera, “This is just how we used to do it for real, in the old days.“ — I was rendered silent for the remainder of the day.
First, I felt numb. Then nauseous. Later came anger, with a vacant resignation of powerlessness. I wanted to erase these painful impressions of a world that seemed so far away. After the permanent damage to my soul had been assessed and I was able to analyze my reactions, I came to see this dirge as a parable of society’s ability rationalize away its own sins; its Olympian capacity to distort words and pervert their meaning. I saw in 1965 Indonesia a reverberation of the cultural hegemony that continues to cover the globe, reflected in the images of western-style shopping malls, the stylish American fashions coveted by the killers, and their beloved action movies celebrating violence and bravado.
I came to the realization that these murderers, from the ideology driving them right down to their apathetic detachment from their crimes, are not unfamiliar at all; they were inspired by the doctrine of Western supremacy over savage, vile communism. This was a genuine, unvarnished Cold War vignette; no lionized generals in submarines, just the abhorrent, real implications of the deafening broadcast of the US propaganda apparatus. My perception of powerlessness as an American became then an implication in a foreign policy of fabricated justifications for global oppression, and it is a legacy that I must reject. And so I thanked this film, for being so true that it shattered the pretentious illusion that I could detach myself from these painful thoughts, and equipped me with an analytical hammer to break down the illusions of my own world.