MIFF 2013 – The Act of Killing (2012)


Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Executive Producers: Werner Herzog, Errol Morris
Featuring: Haji Anif, Syamsul Arifin, Sakhyan Asmara, Anwars Congo, Jusuf Kalla, Herman Koto, Haji Marzuki, Safit Pardede, Ibrahim Sinik, Soaduon Siregar, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, Adi Zulkadry

While Indonesia is Australia’s closest neighbour, it may as well be the moon considering how much people know about it. The only things that seem to make the news are cow slaughter, Muslims, drug trafficking and natural disasters.

I am not going to pass up a chance to learn something about the country, even if as one of the main protagonists says finding out the truth doesn’t always mean it will be good.

While the events described in the documentary are horrible, considering how many conflicts Australia has been involved in fighting Communism, including a military engagement within Indonesia at the same time (http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/confrontation.asp) as the events in the documentary, you can’t cast stones.

The main commentators in this story are two members of a local death squad in Northern Sumatra, Anwars Congo and Herman Koto who are offered the chance to re-enact their killings during the anti-communism campaigns during the military coup in 1965-66 in the style of their favourite movies. They have more than one attempt at filming from the not so serious, to a grim retelling where Anwars is dry-retching at the thought of what he did.

Having the people who did the killings tell the story rather than a voice-over track adds a new dimension to the story. What they did is not regarded with any shame by the government or public in general and a lot of people involved originally have gone onto positions of power and don’t even attempt to hide what they did.

I learnt quite a lot about Indonesia from this documentary, including about the Pancasila Youth who are a major paramilitary organization in the country and don’t even try to hide that they were involved in illegal activities at the time.

There is quite a strange interlude where Herman Koto tries to run for parliament on behalf of the Worker’s Party. Anwars doesn’t really agree with it as he thinks politicians are just “robbers with ties”. The main reason Herman did not get elected was explained that he did not have the money to bribe people to vote for him, which is at least being honest about the political process and not hiding behind political donations or getting the media to try and change government on the behalf of billionaires.

Some of recreations are pretty strange, with Herman cross dressing in a lot of the scenes and at one point monkeys eating the fake guts in the jungle while Anwars’ head sits on a pile of dirt. There is also a musical interlude near a waterfall with dancing girls. It just makes me want to watch the films they made by themselves without the documentary around them.

Even though everything is out in the open about the events, quite a lot of the credits on the movie are still “anonymous” for good reason as the families of the people who were killed during the purge are still discriminated against to this day.

Werner Herzog and Errol Morris were involved as executive producers on the movie, but from what I hear Mr Herzog was not involved in later in the process. Errol Morris’ influence can be seen as the documentary reminded me quite a bit of the Fog of War even down to the main protagonist breaking down at one point.

As the director said himself in a message given before the movie, while you may not enjoy watching the film, you will get something out of it even if it only knowledge.

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