BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In 1965, Anwar Congo was a small-time gangster who sold movie tickets on the black market in Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city and the capital of North Sumatra.
Later that year, after a coup attempt in which six senior army generals were killed, he became a death squad leader. The failed coup was blamed on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party, and the military led a nationwide onslaught in which hundreds of thousands of real and suspected communists were killed.
At least 500,000 Indonesians died at the hands of their own countrymen in less than a year, historians say. Others put the figure as high as 1 million.
Historians say this dark episode reshaped Indonesia's political landscape and affected the course of the Cold War at a time when the United States was escalating its fight against communism. It also ushered in the 32-year rule of Suharto, a senior general who became president.
In the award-winning documentary “The Act of Killing”, those bloody days were relived from the point of view of Congo, his crew and others involved in – and unrepentant about – the killings.
The perpetrators were never punished for the mass killings, in fact many are feted as heroes for ridding the country of communism.
In the film, Congo and his friends rub shoulders with ministers and businessmen. Former vice-president Jusuf Kalla praises the paramilitary organisation that sprang from the death squads for protecting the country.
Survivors and family members of the victims, meanwhile, remain fearful and unable to grieve openly.
“I felt like ... I wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power,” Joshua Oppenheimer, the British-American filmmaker who spent five years working on the documentary, told journalists in Bangkok over skype on Monday after the film’s screening.
REIGN OF IMPUNITY
The film revolves around the lanky Congo, now grey-haired and obsessed with making a movie about his gang’s exploits, as he and others merrily recall their part in the massacre.
In one of many surreal scenes Congo, in white trousers and a bright green shirt, proudly shows how they killed people on a rooftop without making too much of a mess, before breaking out in a song and dance routine.
In other shocking footage, a beaming television host applauds Congo for his heroic efforts.
The owner of a newspaper in Medan speaks fondly of interrogating communist youths, changing their statements to admissions of guilt and beating them to a pulp.
A member of the paramilitary organisation remembered – almost with glee – how they raped girls while others laughed and nodded approvingly.
Perhaps some of the animosity boiled down to economics. Communists didn’t want too many Hollywood movies shown at the theatres, and this would mean less money for the gangsters, Congo said.
Oppenheimer spoke of his shock when he first encountered these men who boasted openly to him about the mass killings. It made him want to understand the nature of that openness, he said.
The result is an honest, brutal documentary that makes for uncomfortable viewing at times.
Like the incident that sparked the film, the existence of “The Act of Killing” is an open secret in Indonesia, partly because of the unorthodox way in which it has been distributed. The film is available for free download and has been screened more than 1,000 times.
In this way, it avoids both a ban by the strict censorship board and retaliation by right-wing groups. Such concerns also mean the names of the Indonesian crew do not appear in the credits.
Oppenheimer, who edited the film down from 1,200 hours of footage to just 159 minutes (Director’s Cut), said he is pleased that it has allowed people to discuss, finally, what happened in 1965.
“The film has come to Indonesia as a corrective to the lies celebrating this history, like the child in the Emperor's New Clothes pointing at the king and saying, ‘Look, the king is naked,’” he said. “In fact, everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it.”