If you watch Democracy Now, you probably know all about Suharto’s monstrous dictatorship in Indonesia. Amy Goodman regularly talks about the genocide in East Timor as being on a par with the Holocaust. Yet the brutal anti-Communist crackdown that took place in 1965 and 1966, a bloodbath that probably killed over a million people, has never gotten the same attention — at least in the United States — as what happened to the Kurds under Saddam or to Bosnia under Milosevic.
A brief glance at the history of Indonesia in the 1960s quickly reveals that compared to Suharto, Saddam and Milosevic were small time thugs barely worth your notice. The most widely accepted estimate, according to Wikipedia, “is that more than 500,000 people were killed.” The purge was a pivotal event in the transition to the “New Order”; the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was eliminated as a political force, and the upheavals led to the downfall of president Sukarno and the commencement of Suharto’s thirty-year presidency.” In fact, there were minor league Suharto flunkies who probably killed more people with their own hands than the number of people who died in the Srebrenica massacre.
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, is about one of them. In 1965, Anwar Congo, a slight, almost childlike old man, was selling black market tickets to American gangster films in the city of Medan in North Sumatra. A few years later, he was in command of one of the death squads Suharto used to kill not only communists, but anybody who got in his way, including innocent Chinese nationals who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Congo, who’s now revered as a founder of the right wing paramilitary group “Pancasila Youth,” brags that he killed over 1000 people with his own hands. He demonstrates his favorite technique, wrapping chicken wire around the victim’s neck, tying the ends to wooden sticks, and twisting until they choked to death. He introduces us to his friend Herman Koto, an obese man who spends half the film in drag, a monster no Hollywood script writer would have dared make up as fiction, a man so sadistic and flat out weird that he makes Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List look like a boring technocrat.
The Act of Killing is a three hour movie, a complex documentary, half Shoah, half Marat Sade, that I can no more describe adequately in this review than I can hum a few bars of “Alice’s Restaurant.” You really owe it to yourself to go see it. Suffice it to say that Anwar Congo deserves to be hauled up in front of a Nuremberg tribunal, then lined up against the wall and shot. That there’s little or no chance of this ever happening, that very foundation of Indonesian society rests upon the death squads he helped found and the mass murders he helped carry out is what gives The Act of Killing so much of its visceral power.
The way Joshua Oppenheimer organizes The Act of Killing is as baroque as it is gut wrenching. The problem isn’t to get Anwar Congo to open up. Congo thinks of himself as a rock star. He has no more trouble talking about how he killed 1000 people with his bare hands than Mick Jagger has with talking about how he wrote “Satisfaction.” The problem, rather, is getting him to understand what he’s done, to feel any kind of empathy for his victims. This Oppenheimer accomplishes by having Congo and Herman Koto reenact scenes from their days leading the death squads. He has no trouble getting them to do this either. Kongo, in fact, learned how to kill from American gangster movies, and, one suspects, that part of the way he distanced himself from the atrocities he committed was by thinking of it as “role playing.” It’s only when Oppenheimer has Congo play the role of one of his victims, and Koto as Congo himself, that Congo is able to understand the enormity of his crimes. At long last he’s able to express remorse.
It’s impossible to express just how much I hated Anwar Congo, not because he comes off like the stereotypical Nazi, but because he doesn’t. He’s a slight, childlike man. He enjoys dancing. In fact, immediately after he explains how he garroted a man to death with his patented two sticks and a length of chicken wire technique, he talks about how smoking pot, drinking and dancing helped him deal with being a mass murderer. He dances the Cha Cha. Try to imagine Adolf Eichmann dancing the Cha Cha. Congo likes nice clothes. He likes partying. The effect is so powerful, I felt a visceral, racist loathing for the Indonesian people. Congo is a vain little monkey, I thought, a primitive savage who saw a few American gangster movies, and decided to play act them literally. Take the movies away. Get the French or the British to invade Indonesia and put the whole amoral, inferior race back under some kind of benevolent colonialism until they can be taught to understand some sort of Christian, or even Islamic morality. Better yet, just nuke them all. Destroy the whole benighted country.
In other words, the film made me feel as genocidal as the people I was feeling genocidal against. If the justification Anwar Kongo and Herman Koto used to commit mass murder was “communism,” the justification I wanted to use was white supremacy. I do think this was part of Oppenheimer’s intention. How else to explain the almost constant presence of Herman Koto in drag? I was offended not by mass murder, but by the effeminate Oriental. Edward Said take notice. I had moved 20 miles to the right of Joseph Conrad. In my own mind, mass murder was only right and proper when done in high northern European Gothic. Somehow I was able to feel hate for the Pancasila Youth that I had never felt for Hitler’s brownshirts. I had forgotten that banal evil is no less evil and no less banal when done to the tune of Richard Wagner than it is while done in between watching a gangster film and dancing the Cha Cha.
After I managed to dismiss my inner racist, my inner leftist took over. As Adi Zulkadry, another, more intellectual death squad leader asked, how is the United States any better than Indonesia? We exterminated the Indians and created a whole genre of cinema, cowboy movies, to celebrate it. Lieutenant William Calley, who organized the My Lai massacre, never expressed any remorse or spent much time in jail. Hell, I even remembered the “Free Calley” marches from my childhood. Calley, like Anwar Congo, is an American hero. Americans not only stood by while George. W. Bush destroyed Iraq, they “supported the troops.” The winners write the rules, Zulkadry explained. That’s why Americans accepted Gitmo. That’s why he’s not going to apologize for what he did. He’s a winner. The communists he killed were weak when he killed them. They’re weaker now, spirits without bodies. They no more count than do the women and children Lieutenant Calley and his troops machine gunned in that ditch at My Lai.
It’s hard to argue with Zulkadry’s logic. It’s even harder to accept the rationalizations of a war criminal. My inner leftist proved as unable to deal with the issues raised by The Act of Killing than my inner white supremacist. After all, didn’t Hitler condemn British Imperialism? Didn’t the British imperialists condemn King Leopold in the Congo? Didn’t George W. Bush condemned Saddam Hussein? Moral equivalence is nothing more than rationalization, whoever does it. As The Act of Killing demonstrates, there are plenty of monsters in the world who aren’t Americans. That the United States supported Suharto’s regime over the course of three decades means the question is moot anyway. Americans and Indonesians are both part of the same neoliberal world order, founded on mass murder and genocide, stained with blood and guts.
Indeed, Suharto’s “New Order” was, perhaps, the first and most brutal of the neoliberal dictatorships supported by Washington. Chomsky once remarked that after the Communist Party was drowned in blood in Indonesia, Vietnam was little more than a side show. Suharto’s right wing death squads or gangsters —“gangster,” as Anwar Kongo explains, means “free man”— are a bit like Ayn Rand heroes. They live according to their desires and take what they want. What better enforcers for a murderous kleptocrat who became immensely rich stealing from his own people? The gangsters were given a license to steal and murder as long as they kept his regime in power. Much like the impunity given by our government to our own bankers and “job creators,” the law just didn’t apply to Suharto’s “free men.” Our bankers and “job creators” were allowed to steal billions of dollars through high tech methods like sub-prime mortgages and government bailouts. Suharto’s “free men” stole hundreds of millions through classic, mafia style shakedowns. Give us a cut of your business or we’ll accuse you of being a communist, murder you, and take your property anyway.
I left The Act of Killing feeling drained, not only because of the documentary’s length, but because of the challenge it laid at my feet. Monsters live among us. Adolf Eichmann ended up exactly where he deserved, dangling at the end of a rope. The Italian people hung Mussolini from a meat hook. But Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher died comfortably in their sleep. And Anwar Kongo, for all the remorse he felt at the documentary’s end, is probably still doing the Cha Cha.