The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary about the mass killings in Indonesia that occurred after a failed coup attempt in 1965, was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. The documentary has generated substantial international interest and an impressive list of awards in the past few years, and its nomination for an Academy Award has reignited the discussion on Indonesia’s often forgotten past of mass violence and how modern day Indonesia is still struggling with reconciliation.
The documentary featured the actual, now aging, killers from the 1965 massacre, primarily gang leader Anwar Congo. These men were gangsters at the time who were hired by the military to carry out the killings as retaliation against the resurrection and as a part of the government’s anti-communist measures at the time. It is estimated that over one million people were killed within a year. Congo is still a prominent figure in Indonesian society, as are many of his fellow killers.
The Act of Killing generated a lot of controversy over the fact that it had these killers reenact their own crimes. In doing so, the documentary showed how the killings are remembered in Indonesian collective history–they are either not taught at all, or they are shown as a positive political by the regime that is still in power. The killers themselves are celebrated and unremorseful. Many of them continued to serve in the military, and are proud of the acts of killing that they committed in 1965, and were eager to reenact them for the camera.
The film is meant to demonstrate how, in the 40+ years since the killings, Indonesia has made little progress in addressing and moving on from the atrocity. But it will be interesting to what role the film itself, which has gained so much traction, will play in reconciliation process.
For one, the killers who reenact the murders they committed are shown on screen watching their own reenactments and expressing bewilderment at how truly violent their acts are. Congo is shown in the trailer watching his own scene and asking “have I sinned?”. A critical step in the reconciliation process is the admittance of guilt by the perpetrator, and it appears that one of the effects of the reenactments was some degree of remorse by the featured killers.
Then there is the effect that the movie has had on Indonesian society as a whole. It has provided a way for victims to come together and form solidarity over their shared past. It has spurred reunions among victims, and in some cases has resulted in the descendants of victims and the descendants of perpetrators to come together and learn about the mistakes of their parents and grandparents.
But whatever positive reception the movie has received within Indonesia has been overshadowed by the overwhelming criticism of the film, particularly by the Indonesian government. The presidential spokesman for foreign affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, denounced the film for portraying Indonesia as a lawluess and cruel nation, and insisted that the modern Indonesia was not the same. In this, Teuku is effectively claiming that modern Indonesia cannot be judged by the acts the government took during the Cold War, despite the fact that nobody was ever held accountable for those acts. Teuku then said that Indonesia is still in a period of reconciliation, and that the govnernment was trying to handle the problems of its past in its own way.
Despite Teuku’s claims, it appears that there has been little official action to try to address these killings. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) conducted a four-year investigation into the violence, but when it presented its findings to the Attorney General’s Office, the request to conduct an official investigation was turned down. No prosecution has occurred, and many officials still do not openly acknowledge that such killings took place.
The Act of Killing thus has huge potential to both bring forth the truth about the killings and to motivate victims and ordinary citizens to call for accountability. As the Academy Awards come up and as the film continues to gain traction, it will be interesting to see its effects both within Indonesia and internationally.