It’s easy to be snobby about the Oscars, but just sometimes, they put a spotlight on a film that deserves, indeed demands, to be more widely watched. The Act of Killing, for example, which has just been nominated for Best Documentary.
If you are interested in how societies process their own history of mass murder, Josh Oppenheimer’s extraordinary film is a must-see. For more than a year, I have been carrying a copy of the film around on a USB stick. Every time someone suggests watching a move, I whip it out.* Since it has been on quite limited cinema release in Europe and the States, several people have been grateful for the chance to watch aged Indonesian gangsters re-enact the slaughter, in 1965/66, of people accused of being Communists. Oh, and of anyone else they disliked.
Not my Indonesian friends though. Not one of them, either in Indonesia or in Europe, has wanted to watch the film. Few can articulate why not. But I suspect the response of one Balinese friend probably reflects what many people are feeling.
“It is a little bit too heavy for me just watching the clip [on TV]. I think the same feeling is probably prevalent among Balinese where we lost quite big proportion of our population. Some said almost 10%. Everyone in Bali is still carrying the pain now, but not wanting to discuss about it…
My father was a member of the nationalist youth and my mother was a member of the communists. My fathers side supposed to kill everyone in my mother side, but luckily he didn’t because my mother side is also an many times removed extended family members. Nonetheless, we lost more than 20 of our extended family in the village on top of having communist suspect from other areas of Bali delivered to be executed in our village field.
The animosity from that period in my village still run very deep now, and has been fertile ground for political parties to mobilize support. Those who [lost] their member in 65 now have their chances to join any militia and feel powerful. The biggest problem to emerge from the tragedy is probably the deepened mistrust of Balinese against Javanese. We have an expression for 65 that goes: orang minum di Jawa, mabuknya di Bali. [People drink in Java; their drunkenness is in Bali]”
Reviews of the Act of Killing (including from critics I respect greatly such as Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, and Nigel Andrews in the FT) fulminate that the “perpetrators” are still swaggering around unpunished. Would we make such a film about the Nazis? asks Lane. Would the Khmer Rouge show off in the way that the killers in Indonesia still do? asks Andrews. No.
Why not? Well, the Nazis and the KR lost. Suharto, whose army encouraged the slaughter of 1965/66 in Indonesia won, and he won with the perhaps-more-than-tacit support of the United States, then embroiled in its own anti-communist vendetta in Indochina. So no Nuremberg trials, no US government funding for genocide projects and documentation centres like the ones run by Yale law students in Cambodia in the mid-1990s. Indeed quite the opposite. Foreign governments supported Suharto in his efforts to bring stability to previously chaotic Indonesia. And he did bring stability, along with a virulent strain of anti-Communist propaganda which was used for over three decades to justify the military’s domination of, well, just about everything. Even in the post-Suharto era, history books have been burned because they attempted to give a more nuanced view of the events of 1965/66. In 2012, the Attorney General rejected a report on the killings by the Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights. Though they intevrviewed over 300 eye-witnesses, they did not produce enough evidence to justify an official investigation, said the AG (You can read it in Indonesian here and in English here, and judge for yourself.)
On the one hand, many millions of Indonesians, like my Balinese friend, come from families still scarred by the killings in very real ways. On the other hand, the whole population has for more than three decades been force fed a version of history in which heroic patriots protected the nation from wicked Communists. It is not wildly surprising, then, that most Indonesians would not automatically think of the protagonists of The Act of Killing as “perpetrators”. According to the dominant narrative, they don’t deserve punishment any more than the Royal Air Force pilot who dropped bombs on Dresden in World War II deserves to be hunted down and made to pay for his sins. Many younger and better-educated Indonesians are, however, beginning to question that dominant narrative more openly. Indeed in The Act of Killing we watch the best-educated of the killers underline the facts for his fellow-assassins: if we tell the truth, he warns, people will begin to think of us as brutal, more brutal even than the Communists. Blowing away the core myths upon which modern Indonesia is built might bring down the whole house of cards, he implies. The other gangsters are not smart enough to understand the implication; they wave him away.
At the moment, the majority of Indonesians continue to wave away the slaughter of 1965; they’d rather not think about it, let alone talk about it. Though I was at first surprised when my friends refused to watch The Act of Killing, I have begun to think that it is because they are among those who understand the implications of a more thorough reckoning very well. But if the movie wins an Oscar, and I dearly hope it will, it will at least be an unavoidable topic for conversation among plugged-in, urban youngsters in Indonesia. And just maybe, they’ll go home and ask their parents what really happened and stories will begin to be told. Will that be a good thing? Not necessarily: scratching at wounds tends to make them bleed again.
*Note to Josh: It’s piracy, I know; I apologise and I owe you several beers as a result. But there just hasn’t been enough opportunity to see The Act of Killing on screen. I have taken many people to see the film when it has been showing in theatres, though, and I tweet it out whenever I see it’s on, so I hope that makes up for the theft a little bit…