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The film about Indonesia that Tony Abbott must see

Tim Kroenert |  02 October 2013

The Act of Killing (MA). Director: Joshua Oppenheimer. 159 minutes

The timing of this 2012 documentary's theatrical release in Australia is intriguing. It coincidentally follows on the heels of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's triumphal visit to Indonesia, and his meeting there with President Susilo Bambung Yudhoyono, to discuss among other things bilateral strategies for dealing with the 'problem' of asylum seekers and related humanitarian issues. The sprawling and occasionally surreal documentary The Act of Killing is a greatly unsettling film in its own right, but against this contemporary geopolitical backdrop it is nothing short of frightening.

American-British filmmaker Oppenheimer turns his camera on Anwar Congo, who in 1965 went from plying the black market trade in movie tickets to running an anti-communist death squad during the transition to the New Order military dictatorship of Suharto. Congo personally executed some 1000 people, in gruesome fashion. Oppenheimer invites him and his cohorts to relive those days, and they do so, via candid interviews, frank conversations that are captured by the fly-on-the-wall Oppenheimer — and through the ebullient production of films that recreate their exploits in the style of Hollywood westerns, musicals, mafia and war films.

The dapper and charismatic Congo is clearly, deeply disturbed; traumatised, yet oblivious to his trauma, or unable to name it. He blithely demonstrates the sadistic method of garrotting prisoners that he devised, after beheading them proved to be too messy. He is genuinely perplexed by the nightmares that keep him awake at night, and admits to having used drugs and alcohol to help him 'forget'. Not just to forget though, but to 'fly', and in fact to 'dance'; at which point he proceeds to perform an elegant cha-cha on the very ground where many of his executions took place, grinning for the camera as it follows this performance for excruciatingly long moments.

The Act of Killing is both gruelling and compelling, due largely to the experience of watching Congo draw closer to appreciating the unassailable evil of his past. Re-enacting a massacre, and witnessing the re-traumatisation of the villagers who have been enlisted as extras; participating in an execution scenario, with himself portraying the victim; these experiences trigger palpable, empathetic responses in Congo that he is unable to recognise, let alone deal with. These eventually bring the horrors he has swallowed for so long, literally to the brink of regurgitation. This is a deeply disturbing portrait of corrupted humanity coming face to face with its own nature.

Yet Congo's growth, such as it is, stands in pointed contrast with the staunch hubris of others in the film. One of his former colleagues displays a dispassionate pragmatism that is the closest thing this documentary offers to pure evil. He is well aware of the extent of the cruelty that they were responsible for, and the lies they told to justify it. He in fact encourages Congo to accept and embrace that reality, not in the pursuit of absolution but simply for the sake of his own mental wellbeing. Challenged by Oppenheimer about morality, he scoffs; the Geneva Convention, he opines, is merely 'today's morality'; morality is changeable, and in Indonesia the end justified the means. 'Take me to The Hague', he says, in haughty tones that suggest he might well have added, 'I dare you'.

There is a cautionary tale in all of this, for modern governments engaging with Indonesia on bilateral strategies relating to humanitarian issues. Congo is shown to appear on a breakfast television talk show, where the young female host commends his 'achievements', to the rapturous applause of the studio audience. Congo is revered to the point of celebrity, as the founding father of the vast right-wing paramilitary group the Pancasila Youth. Many of his death squad contemporaries hold positions of power and influence. The Act of Killing demonstrates a direct continuum between the evils of the past and the present political reality.

In Australia the reality of ongoing Indigenous disadvantage is proof of the effect of past atrocities on the structure of ensuing society. Likewise, despite some democratic progress in recent times, Indonesia's unhealed past remains a source of serious human rights problems. On both counts, the Abbott Government would do well to take note.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

Thanks for this reminder.The West-approved ending of Sukarno's rule in the name of anti-communism/democracy is still covered up along with many parallel silences -Chile,Iran,mozambique

David Ardagh 03 October 2013

Tony Abbotts Triumph??? 'Ditch the Witch" "Her Father died of shame" "Toxic Carbon Tax" I will stop the boats..I will stop,I will stop.I will stop....When.

john m costigan 03 October 2013

An excellent review of what appears to be a film worth watching. Like many countries which have lived under a dictatorship Indonesia and its citizens need to confront and exorcise their past. We in Australia, who were never in that situation, probably need, as you say, to also confront and come to terms with certain aspects of our collective past. Anwar Congo seems to have almost come to face his grisly past. Full acknowledgement and restitution obviously lay outside the film's remit. Regarding Indonesia and its people, I think the facing up to the brutal Suharto regime is taking place. There will always be a minority who think Suharto was right. Most Indonesians don't share that opinion. I think we in Australia need to study Indonesian culture and history to understand how Indonesians think, feel and cope. It is a very different way to ours. They also have their human rights and refugee rights activists, who are basically totally unknown here. Lecturing Indonesians in a hectoring manner will be seen as demeaning. We need to understand their society and communicate appropriately with them. It is a long task which is only beginning. We need to win their friendship and respect to achieve it.

Edward F 04 October 2013

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