On “The Act Of Killing”

Note: I have not seen “The Act Of Killing” yet! Of course I am incredibly interested to see it, especially as I spent time in Indonesia in 2002-3, working on a film about the Achenese independence movement.

For those who don’t know, in 1965-1966 in Indonesia there was a wholesale slaughter of anyone thought to be associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI. Estimates range from 500,000 to more as far as how many were killed, and this unfathomably barbaric “act of killing” helped to usher in the 30-year rule of the dictator Suharto.

The most insane part of this story is that for over forty years no one  has really ever been named, much less held accountable, as being responsible for these atrocities. Obviously a massacre on this scale involved the Indonesian military and obviously Suharto had something to do with it, but nothing, and I mean nothing, was ever done to find out who did the deed, and more importantly: whose orders were they following when they coldly executed over half a million people in less than a year? In one sense it is similar to Argentina’s “disappeared”: both were cases of mass murder in the service of The Cold War, brutal slayings that were swept under the rug in the name of battling Communism, and in each country they became the respective nation’s national shame.

And now director Joshua Oppenheimer has made a film about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, and somehow he tracked down and utilized the actual perpetrators of the killings, who both re-anact and try and explain their actions. I can’t say any more until I see the film, and in case you haven’t seen it, here is the trailer:

And this is an interview with Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who co-produced the film.

Having watched these short pieces about the “The Act Of Killing”, I do want to add one point: smiling is not culturally synonymous all over the world. Or to put it another way (and anyone out there who knows better than I, feel free to correct me), smiling in Indonesian society does not mean the same as in the United States. Indonesians smile when they do just about anything, and it does not at all mean that they are enjoying the task at hand. And when one sees men describing their role in the massacres of the PKI, the fact that they are smiling does not mean that they are psychotic.

Anyways, as I said, I am looking forward to seeing the film, as much as anyone can look forward to seeing a movie about such a horrific topic. In any event I am glad the subject matter is getting attention, today as the U.S. rushes into yet another “intervention”, and the American Right continues to glamorize The Cold War as something that was “won”. If you lived in many places in the world, like Indonesia, there was no win or lose: murder or dictatorship were your only choices.


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