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The Act of Killing: A Meditation on Human Guilt

The Act of Killing (theatrical release) – 2012

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer


Organised by:

Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, and

The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, Guilt Working Group


Venue: Birkbeck Cinema


What is the significance of guilt in a modern society? How does our perception of guilt affect our actions, laws, relationships, and cultures? The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research screened The Act of Killing on the 28th of February, to illustrate the need for interdisciplinary debate on the concept of guilt.

The Act of Killing is visually arresting and psychologically taxing. From the perspective of present-day Indonesia, director Joshua Oppenheimer explores the genocide that took place during 1965 and 1966, killing over a million people, through the eyes of its perpetrators: the so-called “free men” gangsters of the island nation.

Meet Anwar Congo. Something of a celebrity among Indonesians, Anwar is a grandfather with a sweet face and gentle disposition. He is quick to smile, revealing a nice set of chompers. It is not the smile one would expect from a mass murderer, though that is exactly what he is. During the purges, Congo was a gangster. He earned money as an executioner for paramilitary thugs, killing named “communists” who were accused of posing a threat to the nation. Seemingly proud of their brutal past, he and his friend, fellow enforcer Herman Koto, feel it is time to reveal their part in the nation’s history, so they agree to help Oppenheimer by re-enacting their part in the genocide on film.

Herman’s personality is in stark contrast to Anwar’s. A paramilitary leader, husband, father, and sometimes drag queen, he has a greater physical presence and seems more at ease with the dramatisation of the killings. He even engages his own children in re-enacting scenes from the murderous rampages. Herman definitely plays to the camera. He believes he and Anwar could be great stars, in spite of their bloody pasts.

Perhaps the toughest of the three, Adi Zulkadry is also a father and husband, and has obviously had some financial success since his gangster days. He feels no guilt over his actions during the coup. He believes the drive for survival is justification of the act of killing, which he freely admits is the worst crime one can possibly commit. Where human rights are concerned, the winners write history; they judge what is right and what is wrong.

The film that these former gangsters are making with Oppenheimer isn’t actually real. It is a device intended to reveal the natures of the individual killers, the cultural and political atmosphere of present day Indonesia (now run by a military dictatorship) and the humanisation (or lack thereof) of the act of killing. It is made on behalf of people who can’t speak out for fear of prosecution or death; when the credits roll, many contributors and crew are listed only as ‘anonymous’. Today, Indonesians still fear for their safety and that of their families.

The re-enactments of the banal brutality are shocking, but perhaps more shocking is the frankness of the interviews with the three former gangsters as they decide on scenes and blocking. Two specific sequences stand out. Firstly, the burning of a village. Actors are chosen off the streets, with the organisation Pancasila Youth playing themselves but 45 years in the past. This was the paramilitary group responsible for most if not all of the deaths during the coup. The re-enactment is meant to depict the torching and pillaging of a village in North Sumatra, home to “communists” and Chinese Indonesians. Here though, the line between dramatisation and reality is blurred: a woman, clearly stunned, is overwhelmed by the scene. She sits on the ground, her eyes unfocused. The men who were just playing the parts of thugs and rapists now try to help and bring her water. Children continue to cry, even after the scene has wrapped. Everyone on set now seems to realise that the sanctioned arson, the twisted cruelty, the unreasonable torture and murders actually happened.

In another powerful scene, Anwar takes the role of a Chinese man facing execution. As all had cited Hollywood gangster films of the 1960s as inspirations to their gangster personae, this is set in an office, the interrogators donning fedoras and smart-looking suits. Anwar, initially committed to acting in the film, now has the tables turned on him. When the time comes for his “execution”, he signals he has had enough, and the scene must stop. Anwar cannot speak, much less continue acting. He has experienced some of the terror he invoked in thousands of victims. When we view Anwar watching the completed scene, he appears his usual self, but the experience has clearly left an impression on his already conflicted mind. Anwar admits early on to having terrible nightmares about the deaths of his many victims. Now he wonders if he actually has sinned, as though it never occurred to him before.

I find The Act of Killing to be at a crossroads of humanity and banality. In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker states that we all are capable of murder, given the appropriate motivation. I find this difficult to swallow, but watching the film, I am constantly reminded of how the animalistic side of our human nature can be encouraged and sustained. I don’t condone the acts of the gangsters, nor do I pretend to understand the motivations of those who seized power or ordered the murders. However, on a human level, I understand the allure of power, the formation of identity, the natural respect for authority, and the comforting effects of luxury.

Most of the documentary subjects are ill-educated and have had little opportunity or encouragement to develop a rounded conscience, thus their differing understandings of guilt. It is my belief that they are all products of a restless society, and given their lack of understanding of compassion, it doesn’t surprise me that they could revel in such violence without remorse.

The only positive to come of this dark chapter of Indonesian history is that it is finally being brought to the global stage. Blatant disregard for the value of human life can no longer be excused. The time for educating and upholding the rights of each person, living or dead, is now. Oppenheimer risked a great deal in making this film, as did many Indonesians. It is an honour to live in an age where this film is celebrated for its achievements. The Act of Killing is utterly, tragically remarkable, and an effective catalyst for change.