The Banality of Impunity

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Indonesia, 1965: a campaign of mass assassination, torture, rape, imprisonment and various other atrocities followed Suharto’s grip on power and led to over thirty years of dictatorship which has encouraged a system of corruption ever since.  This is the broad context for a film where those taking a lead in such human rights violations are given the power to control the story.  The contents of the film exude Indonesia and with that come a vision so much more than nationality.  To appreciate the film a consideration of subject and method are required while the specific politics of 1965 Indonesia deserve their own space.

Films about violence often assume the perspective of resisters or survivors.  When killers are portrayed it is often as losers or clearly reformed, not the case here.  This may sound like a grotesque joke, to give unrepentant killers the power to tell and edit stories of mass murder with little regard for their victims but the final product provides insight into their disturbing and surreal realities.  Instead of seeking to display ‘facts’ The Act of Killing explores the intimate and contradictory interpretations and justifications for mass murder.  In one scene Anwar and an old killing buddy are wearing makeup to look like torture victims while they re-enact violence against an actual victim; a reflection of the continued treatment of victims by the Indonesian state perhaps.

To rewind a little, Arsan and Aminah or Born Free was the film conceived and directed by Anwar and his murderous crew, a film in which they also play killers and victims.  In part The Act of Killing is a document of making that movie as the actors-directors-killers seek to control their emotions and memories through a commentary in which they reveal motives and practices.  Whether Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, conveyed the fact that Arsan and Aminah was just a prop is an interesting question but the granted impunity seems to imply consent was not considered important.   The tapestry of impunity that unfolds reveals personal and national inabilities to acknowledge massive injustices that encourage impotence in dealing with corruption.

The audience is commended to look upon Anwar, the main character, as a man of good health and someone to laugh with and feel sorry for.  That is if he was not a mass murderer confused about the reasons for his own fluttering guilt.  It is this connection that seeks to sucker the audience into a more personal dilemma; you are also implicated in such acts of impunity both domestic and foreign.  With this recognition the mirror of more recent horrors that seem closer to home rings out.  The ritual consuming of impunity and violence through corporate media outlets and political parties encourages Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Trayvon Martin, Israel/Palestine.  History isn’t simply created by the winners but encouraged by the spectators.

Unlike much of the commentary about the film, The Act of Killing itself can be read as going beyond many dichotomies such as fake/real, fiction/non-fiction, happy/sad, perpetrator/victim.  At the same time there is a clear human rights frame as Oppenheimer concentrates upon the acts of killing, the propaganda that fuelled them, and the atmosphere of impunity.  Consequently the film hits home because genocides are never about the victims but about powerful elites who want to take and maintain control.  Perhaps for this reason it is more important to gain understandings of killers rather than victims.

Robert Cribb has written at length about the 1965 killings and points out that neglecting the role of the army allows for an orientalist feel, that it was simply ‘natives at it again’.  However the prospect that Indonesia’s armed forces are a professional outfit capable of anything more than keeping its own citizenry down is bold.  Likewise the opportunity was missed to explore more religious dynamics in the 1965 killings.  But that’s enough on what the film was not, the fact that Anwar’s gang speak so blatantly on camera makes for a powerful testimony.  The possibility of exaggeration is countered by a scenario where boasting about the horrors of murder and rape can be considered a social wealth.

The Act of Killing therefore sits alongside Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission recent report advocating government apologies and victim compensation and Tempo’s (national Indonesian magazine) recent investigations demonstrating that this is not a one off phenomena.  As such The Act of Killing has helped provide a three-prong approach to breaking over forty years of silence on the killings.  It also breaks ground in documentary style and subtly ponders more general questions about each individual’s responsibility in mass injustices.

The Act of Killing is released on DVD at the end of November until then you might catch it at your local cinema.