Sunday, August 16, 2015

1983. Film Review: The Act of Killing (On Anti-Communist Genocide in Indonesia 1965-66)

By Kamran Nayeri, August 16, 2015
A surreal scene from The Act of Killing

Historical background
In the dominant bourgeois culture it is common for us to know of genocide committed by “communist” Stalin, Mao, or Khmer Rouge or by Nazi Germany.  This is because the popularized versions of these atrocities have served the political agenda of the world capitalist powers. The “communist” crimes against humanity have served the anti-communist cause of the bourgeoisie and the Nazi genocide committed against Jews is used to justify crimes of the colonial-settler Jewish State against the Palestinian people who have been driven from their homeland to become refugees or made into prisoners in their own land or to become second class citizens of Israel.

The Act of Killing (2012, Norway, Denmark and U.K.) is unique in that it turns our attention to genocide committed mostly against more than a million alleged members and sympathizers of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as well as ethnic Chinese and others between 1965-66. The genocide occurred in the aftermath of a failed military coup that was blamed on the PKI and paramilitary forces began the mass killings of its members and supporters.  In thee process, general Suharto who oversaw the entire campaign deposed President Sukarno and assumed power in 1967.

Sukarno was a nationalist leader who opposed Dutch colonization of Indonesia and became its first president in 1945.  From 1951 until its demise in 1965, the PKI lent its support to Sukarno as the embodiment of the “national bourgeoise.” This political support continued even after 1957 when Sukarno assumed authoritarian powers.  The PKI grew from some 8,000 members after the World War II to about 3 million members to become the largest Communist party not in power. In early 1960s, Sukarno adopted an “anti-imperialist” posture brining into government representatives from the PKI. 

The documentary
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and co-directed by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian, the documentary takes the unusual approach to the genocide by inviting some of the perpetrators of the mass killing to recall and stage scenes from some their crimes. In particular, the film focuses on self-proclaimed gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry who were selling black market movie theater tickets and extorting money from ethnic Chinese in 1965 to become leaders of the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra. Anwar claims to personally killed 1,000 people.

The documentary superimposes surreal imagery on various episode where Anwar and Adi and their collaborators stage various episodes in North Sumatra in the 1965-66 genocide.  In one scene Anwar talks about and demonstrates how he killed victims by strangulating them with a wire because shooting them would have been too messy. 

This approach to the Indonesian genocide does not engage the political motive for the campaign Suharto waged to destroy the massive PKI that was clearly a concern for imperialism and the Indonesian ruling elite (for a discussion see,  Guy J. Pauker, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Indonesia, The Rand Corporation, February 1969).  Instead it throws light on how such genocide bring forward sadistic and criminal tendencies operative beneath the "normal" society’s surface and empowers it, and how once the genocides is over its impact lives on for half a century or more in Indonesia. 

Thus, we witness a scene where Anwar asks Adi to “interrogate” him using sadistic techniques and in another to act as a victim of his own strangulation technique. Of course, the acts stop when the pain becomes too much to bear.  But the sadomasochistic desires of Anwar, Adi and others are on full display.  Another is their admiration for gangsterism, Anwar even translates “gangster” as “free man”.  In fact, Anwar is such a strong believer in his crimes that he recounts them for his very young grandchildren. 

A historic defeat
Today, Anwar is revered by the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers who are openly involved in corruption, election rigging and clearing people from their land for developers. Such connections that the documentary uncovers show how genocides of this proportion are historic defeat for working people. The Indonesian working people are still suffering from its blows and humanity has been set back. 

The fact that public bourgeois opinion has focused on crimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler but has been quiet on the Indonesian genocide because it was primarily perpetuated against Communists betrays the pragmatic nature of bourgeois and imperialist morality.  And the problem is not just historical: bourgeois public opinion is largely silent today on imperialist wars that have killed, wounded, and misplaced millions in Middle East and North Africa and the recent Israeli war against defenseless people of the Gaza Strip which is the largest open air prison ever build. 

The Act of Killing is too long and sometimes too difficult to stand for my taste.  But it is expertly done and unravels an episode in modern history when humanity was put to a moral test and failed.  A correction for this historical crime requires remembering.  The Act of Killing urges us to remember.

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