‘Because at this time we are trying to create a positive image’: Reactions to The Act of Killing, Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer et al

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, follows a small group of those involved in the 1965-6 anti-Communist massacres in which perhaps 500,000-1,000,000 Indonesians were killed. The perpetrators featured in the film were associated with the nationalist paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), which is still in existence. In the film they boast about their crimes and hobnob with currently serving national and regional level politicians. In disturbing and surreal scenes they perform re-enactments of the atrocities in styles influences by western and Indonesian film genres.

Having seen this recently in London (the film and Director are currently on a national UK tour) I was planning to write a review. However, reading up on about the film I realised how much had already been written. Reviews and articles in the Guardian, Telegraph and Financial Times (as well as American and Australian newspapers among others) have already covered it for the non-specialist reader. For those interested in a more in depth look there is the wonderful resource of Inside Indonesia, with a couple of contrasting reviews from Jess Melvin and Robert Cribb and an interview with the director. Some wider context is provide by two pieces on how discussion of the 1965-6 pogroms is currently evolving in Indonesia, and a recent Inside Indonesia edition summarising recent research. And on the site of the International Institute for Asian Studies can be found a sophisticated treatment of the film and its context from Ariel Heryanto.

[Update 26.1.14 – I’ve come across some more interesting discussions of the film, including a review by the Cornell Academic Tom Pepinsky and in the comments on that review a link to a Quora discussion on Indonesian reactions to the film].

Whilst I was doing this reading an event caught my attention. In October 2012 a regional newspaper, Radar Bogor, published an article (the website is currently down but a cached version is available) entitled ‘The World Condemns the Pemuda Pancasila’ about the film and reactions to it. Feeling they had been unfairly represented, a week later hundreds of members of the Pemuda Pancasila descended on the offices of Radar Bogor demanding an apology. When a representative came out to negotiate he was jostled, punched and kicked. There followed reports to the police and Press Commission before an agreement was finally reached.

So, instead of a review, I thought I would do my bit to shed light on the film through a translation. Below I have translated the Radar Bogor Article which caused such a violent reaction. What I found particularly surprising is that the article actually went out of its way to include the self-justificatory and defensive comments of Pemuda Pancasila members.

The title for my blog post comes from a Pemuda Pancasila leader, and sums up the bizarre irony of resorting to violence to protest about being depicted as murderous.

The World Condemns the Pemuda Pancasila

PKI Massacres in Medan Filmed

Monday 1 October 2012

Bogor – Although the controversy over the film ‘[The] Innocence of Muslims’ in Indonesia is not yet over, there is now another film circulating with the potential to cause a commotion across the country. The film, entitled Jagal [slaughterer]or The Act of Killing has succeeded in taking the world by storm.

The aforementioned documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer tells the story of mass killing of members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and ethnic Chinese, by youths in Medan including elements of the Pemuda Pancasila [Pancasila Youth] in the year 1965.

From beginning to end the film Jagal presents the savagery of a massacre from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Film clips circulating on Youtube since two months ago (28/8/12), show the cheerfulness of the PKI’s killers dressed in orange camouflage, when carrying out killings in a village. Their faces also showed no remorse.

Provocative elements of the film are also contained in the appearance of two national figures, that is former vice president Jusuf Kalla and the Chairman of the National Pemuda Pancasila Council, Japto Soerjosoemarno.

Due to the theme taken, The Act of Killing clearly may spark controversy within the country and the international community. And the film has not just been uploaded to Youtube. Joshua has already shown this film [depicting this] inhumanity at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival in Canada. The film Jagal then received quite a high score, 8.6, on the film fan review site IMDB.

The Chairman of The Commission for ‘The Dissapeared’ and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Haris Azhar confirmed that this film will cause a stir internationally.

It is not just the theme, but the film also shows directly the immediate perpetrators from a still influential organisation. ‘This film will further show what really happened in the massacres of 1965,’ he said.

Comments of a similar tone came in the words of historian Asvi Warman Adam. He claimed The Act of Killing will further strengthen the evidence for the need for the formation of an ad hoc fundamental rights court for cases from 1965, as was recommended by the National Human Rights Commission last July.

He is certain that the film will change the view of the West in the context of the Cold War towards the events of 1965. ‘All this time western societies have claimed this (the massacres of the PKI) was evil but necessary’ said Asvi when contacted separately.

Internationally, [the crimes depicted in] this 115 minute film have been condemned by a number of groups. ‘I have not seen a film as weighty or frightening (as the Act of Killing) in the last decade,’ said Werner Herzog, a German actor, director and producer, as quoted on the site theactofkilling.com. ‘The Act of Killing is shocking in the history of film’.

Errol Mark Morris, an American director, joined in condemnation [the crimes depicted in] The Act of Killing. In his opinion the film is an extraordinary portrait of the mass killings carried out by the Pemuda Pancasila.

In producing this film, Joshua was not alone. He worked on Jagal with Christine Cynn and a local director whose identity is concealed. This director claims to be a former student who joined the anti-Soeharto demonstrations in 1998.

The main figure in The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo. He is a former member of the Pemuda Pancasila and indeed admitted involvement in the massacres and [claimed] to be forced to carry out killings because he did not want to be killed.

Oppenheimer succeeded in asking Anwar and his associates to make a film about the experiences of their youth in which they much admired cowboy films, including at the moments when they exterminated PKI [followers].

Eventually, the film which was initially entitled Arsan and Aminah became a part of The Act of Killing. Ironically, up until now whilst Anwar was the main character [he] did not know that the film he was starring in was not Arsan and Aminah.

Anwar said that at the time he was prepared to appear in the film but requested that the film be shown after he had died. Anwar claims to worry following the screening of this film which tells the story of the PKI massacres direct from the perpetrators.

“Yes, [I] worry. I worry the people from that generation feel this or that,’ said Anwar to dozens of journalists from national and international organisations (Aljazeerah) in the offices of the North Sumatera Pemuda Pancasila Regional Leadership Committee, [on] Jalan Thamrin, Medan.

Anwar still held disappointment towards Joshua Oppenheimer. He said the American director never contacted him again. He judged that the film Joshua made was incomplete. “On the issue of legal steps, I will discuss with my legal advisor’, he continued.

“The film is only piecemeal. The director should have also told about the ulama and the Pemuda Pancasila members who were victims of the PKI” responded the Chairman of North Sumatera Pemuda Pancasila Regional Leadership Committee, Anuar Shah. According to Anuar Shah, [The] Act of Killing discredited the Pemuda Pancasila. He also did not want the film shown in North Sumatera. “To be honest I object if the film is unbalanced. If it is approved we will make our own film [showing] the truth,” he said.

The Chairman of the Pemuda Pancasila Branch Leadership Committee for the City of Bogor, Mohammad Benninu Argoebie, also spoke out. Whilst claiming to have closely scrutinised the controversial film, Ben still asked people to watch the film on Youtube and the cinema.

Ben said, it is better that society can think clearly and wisely when watching this film [about] the massacres. With regard to the involvement of the Pemuda Pancasila at the time of the PKI massacres, Ben confirmed this.

According to Ben, the Pemuda Pancasila had an important task in helping the Indonesian National Army (TNI) in eradicating the communist movement at that time. Despite this Ben did not have a problem if the film is shown in Bogor.

“The aims in the making in the film must also get serious attention. The government must closely watch this film. Because this film may become propaganda, stemming from the dislike of a number of groups towards the Pemuda Pancasila. Because at this time we are trying to create a positive image,’ he said.