By Kristi Kouchakji

A lot has been said about whether Anwar Congo’s seemingly remorseful physical reaction at the end of The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013) is genuine, or staged for the camera. Miia Piironen has, on this very blog, gone so far as to claim that not only is Anwar not remorseful in the least, but that the film itself glorifies his actions, canonizes the killers by lavishing attention on them, and effectively serves as a Pancasila manifesto.

First, the Pancasila Youth are still only held up as heroes by the Indonesian government and those few who believe the official, sanitized version of Indonesian history that glosses over or omits entirely the purges of 1965-1966. In an interview with Melis Behlil for Cineaste’s summer 2013 issue, Oppenheimer shares that he was encouraged by the families of the victims of the purges to make a film about the killers in order to fully expose this part of Indonesia’s history that is never discussed, to get a confession or acknowledgement of sorts from those responsible, and to show how the events of nearly 40 years ago are still used as a tool of repression. I would even argue that to never ask these men to show their faces and own their actions would be tantamount to continuing to repress discussion of these events, and would leave room for pro-government/pro-Pancasila voices to claim that the film is a work of fiction, making exaggerated claims. That, in turn, would leave room for argument as to whether the film, by omitting any admissions from those involved, was setting the killers up to be further martyred and glorified by the Indonesian government.

Furthermore, if the film did glorify the killers as national heroes, then why would Indonesian government censors not allow it to be shown? If the film canonized the killers, would it not then serve the government’s purposes and thus be given wide, official distribution, and perhaps be shown in schools as an updated version of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (the anti-Communist propaganda film glorifying the purges that Al-Jazeera’s 101 East claims every Indonesian child was made to watch until the end of Suharto’s regime)? Had the film made heroes of the killers, thus meeting with government approval and likely having access to officially sanctioned and monetized distribution channels in Indonesia, why would the filmmakers feel a need to make it available for free download in Indonesia? Furthermore, why would a leaked rough cut have provoked a reaction on a message board from someone connected to the production asking torrent users to please seed the director’s cut with potentially harmful material removed (as well as with “correct and final audio picture and subtitles” – a detail which hints that the poster’s claim to being close to the production may very well be true)?

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As for how the film, and Anwar’s reaction to his sudden understanding of what he has done, would be read by Indonesian audiences, indications are fairly clear that this is being read as an anti-government, anti-Pancasila activist film serving its intended purpose as an acknowledgement of a chapter in Indonesian history that is frequently glossed over (if mentioned at all). As reported by 101 East, not only is this period only beginning to be acknowledged now, but researchers seeking to exhume mass graves from the purges in Bali need permits that have never been granted before the most recent wave of activism on this fronts. These sites, in the most literal act of “glossing over” imaginable, frequently have luxurious tourist resorts built directly on top of them.

With regards to Anwar’s reaction, his attempts to deny the film’s veracity followed by an emotional reaction to a screening and an admission to 101 East that what the film says is true followed by a total refusal to do any more press points to multiple levels of shame and unease on his part: Anwar knows what he has done and grasps the magnitude of it, he has been twice filmed having an emotional reaction to it, and coming from a highly patriarchal society in which his role was to be an alpha male in all his interactions, possibly feels like these emotional reactions are now what he needs to distance himself from in order to continue functioning at even a most basic level. In this sense, I am not convinced that Anwar has been canonized by the film. If anything, Anwar has been confronted with and broken down by the realization that his actions not only were real and took the lives of and otherwise impacted thousands of others who are as human as he is, but that they do not make him the great man he thought they would, and have not provided any of the salvation, success or glory he thought they would. As to an Indonesian audience’s reaction, that remains to be seen: Given that the film cannot be shown commercially or even publicly, it is for the moment only being seen and discussed in activist circles, and there continues to be a fear of speaking out about the film or the anti-Communist purges – the very reason the film was made in the first place.