“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” – Voltaire
The movies I generally seek out are those with a superbly directed cast of gifted actors bringing to life a captivating story. Very rare, however, are those movies that leave you stunned, traumatised even, and unable to articulate anything about the cinematic experience just participated in.
On a recent Monday morning, I was invited to attend a secret screening of The Act Of Killing (Jagal in Indonesian), a film most of us in Indonesia will know of, yet have not been able to watch. Nor will we, except perhaps through illegal downloads once it is on general release everywhere but here in mid-year.
Its subject matter is the genocide of supposed ‘communists’, members and associates of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) in 1965/6 in the aftermath of the takeover of Indonesia by Gen. Suharto, and the role played in the killings by ‘preman’, a word regularly defined in the movie as ‘free men’.
It was while filming The Globalization Tapes (2003), a participatory documentary project made with plantation workers in north Sumatra, that directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn “discovered that … one of the military’s main objectives in the killings was to destroy the anti-colonial labour movement that had existed until 1965, and to lure foreign investors with the promise of cheap, docile workers and abundant natural resources.”
Killers and survivors continued to live in the same villages: the killers were the local power structure. By interviewing them and working their way up the heirachy, in 2004 they met Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, leaders of Pasukan Kodok (Frog Squad) in Medan, the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra.
In their youth, the two older men had been cinema ticket scalpers whose silver screen heroes were simplistic and manly: Congo’s hero was John Wayne.
The film makers offered the two men, along with Congo’s overweight protégé and sidekick Herman Koto who, Congo suggested, could play-act as the Spanish actor Fernando Sancho, the archtypical Mexican heavy in many spaghetti westerns, the opportunity to star in their own film.
Boastful about their killings, they agreed to re-enact their ‘techniques’ and certain incidents. Scenes switch between pre-production, the filmed clips, and then the discussion of them by the actor-participants: “No, we did it this way.” And so we have a film within a film.
An early scene sees them visiting areas of Medan trying to recruit locals who’d be prepared to play distraught women whose husbands and sons were being taken away to be tortured and killed before their bodies were dumped in Deli, the city’s main river.
In one area, Congo says that they wouldn’t find any recruits there because “this is a communist area.” Such banality and insouciance is commonplace for much of the film.
Among the print machinery of the Medan Pos, the newspaper publisher, Ibrahim Siruk, says that he’d decided who’d be killed: “My job was to make people hate them – and beat them to a pulp.”
This was eagerly done by the Frog Squad. Congo takes the film crew up to the open roof area where he acts out how he would use a length of wire to murder his victims. He explains that knives and bludgeoning had produced too much blood “which left a bad smell.”
These aging thugs are well-entrenched within today’s power circle and Congo is a hero to many. For example, the then North Sumatra governor Syamsul Arifin glowingly describes how Congo looked after him through his childhood.
(In 2011, Arifin was jailed for six years for corruption, causing state losses of Rp.102 billion (c.$103.3 million) whilst Langkat regent from 2000 to 2007)
We see Congo fêted at an open air rally by Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the leader of Pemuda Pancasila (PP), the paramilitary organisation with, it claims, three million members. In 65/6, PP ran death squads for the Indonesian army, murdering thousands of alleged communists and Chinese Indonesians across the province of North Sumatra.
Soerjosoemarno, who in 1980 was ‘appointed’ by PP’s death squad leaders, then addresses the troops: “We have too much democracy – it’s chaos.”
At an indoor rally, PP is addressed by SBY’s then vice-president, Jusuf Kalla. He says, “Preman means ‘free men’. We need gangsters to get things done.”
Perhaps even more shocking is the arrival at the location of the re-enactment of a raid on a village harbouring ‘communists’ of the then Deputy Youth Empowerment Minister Sakhyan Asmara, dressed in his PP orange military-style uniform. He advised the amateur actors to show more realism. He left, and they did, leaving several women and children in hysterics, perhaps reliving residual memories from their family histories.
With that support, it is little wonder that Congo and Zulkadry, who at one point is seen wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘Apathetic’ writ large, demonstrated little remorse.
The final scene, though, may yet prove the true worth of this film.
Congo agrees to play a role as a prisoner about to be garrotted; there are two takes, after which he says, “I can’t do that.”
He then revisits the upstairs killing zone of the Medan and says, “I knew it was wrong, but I had to do it.” He retches once, twice, with his head turned away from the camera, and at the last he is seen standing alone, silent in contemplation.
The version we watched was long, perhaps too long. Yet I couldn’t leave until the end when we stood up silently and went our separate ways, traumatised and unable in that moment to articulate what we’d just witnessed cinematically. As another reviewer has said, “The Act of Killing is a film that is essential and enraging, it begs to be seen, then never watched again.”