The Act of Killing: the Aesthetic Discourse of Historical Meaning

The Visual Form of Indonesian Government

In 2012, a documentary film entitled The Act of Killing appeared against the aesthetic discourse and historical meaning of the G30S/PKI. In addition to the controversy in Indonesia related to domestic political affairs and international condemnation of gross human rights violations, the film’s ideological, social, and political controversies are publicly recognized as an artistic product with both direct and indirect weight. The film has won dozens of awards at various international film festivals and has also drawn criticism for its exploits of cruelty.

Specific people position The Act of Killing as a verbal and visual form. More specifically, it is a documentary text. The film enters the realm of discursive practice, changing its status as a communicative event and presenting various interpretations. At the socio-cultural level, the G30S/PKI incident is part of Indonesian history. It can be interpreted in multiple ways by society. The difference in understanding also raises controversy because it is not in line with the official version released by the Indonesian government.

Indonesian Communist Party

The blood ink wrote many stories on the record of humanity’s journey. For such a reason, too, many of which do not end with society. On September 30, 1965, a minor point in the long history of the Indonesian nation became the turning point that created the tragedy of the massacre of millions of people because of the sign of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), labor unions, landless peasants, intellectuals, Chinese descent, and other symptoms. The celebration of millions of others celebrating an atrocity is remembered through a propaganda film every year. The Act of Killing acts as an antithesis and discourse to the aesthetic and historical meaning. Individuals have instilled such a doctrine for decades in every Indonesian human head.

Joshua Oppenheimer directed The Act of Killing with Christine Cynn and one of Anonymous among many other Anonymous. It is the story of the people behind the massacre who made the PKI and communism formless ghosts to create a state establishment during the New Order rule. Anwar Congo and his friends are butchers who carry out executions on people considered dangerous in North Sumatra at the time. The documentary clearly stated that the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila and Anwar’s friends celebrated. Their power relationship came to rule in Indonesia without a defense and trial.

Anwar Congo and Gangster Films

The audience saw an absolute atrocity in the reconstruction that Anwar and his friends had committed during one of the darkest times in history. With pride and honesty as if present because Anwar departed as a cinema thug but loves. The gangster films at the time inspired him as well, an irony and explicit cruelty.

There was a readiness and belief in the truth because of the sentiment towards the PKI people. The inclusion of western films was challenging, desirable, and did not directly benefit at the point. From the gangster films, the inspiration production offers using wires, tables, and other execution tools inspired Anwar’s execution methods. Anwar and his friends use the camera to show their imagination since watching classic American gangster films.

The Creative Process of Oppenheimer

Anwar and his friends who performed the reconstruction brought a deep sense of discomfort and horror to the audience. It is one of the successes of The Act of Killing in speaking and delivering its message, aesthetic discourse, and historical meaning. Joshua’s ability to present spectacle through a different visual aspect is thanks to a relationship-building over his years of struggle with butchers and survivors of the 1965 massacre in North Sumatra since his collaboration with garden workers in the film The Globalization Tapes.

The closeness of the years of struggle that made it easy for him made Anwar and his friends fully involved in the creative process; it starts from writing the script to reconstruct memories with imagination from proximity to idolized gangster films. In addition to making them more flexible, Oppenheimer, in addition, has more freedom to explore taboo matters without a hitch.

The Reality and Fiction

In the first place, Anwar refused to submit testimony in the Oppenheimer documentary. He wanted to make his fictional film about the history of himself and his friends related to 1965. Therefore, Anwar and his friends made a film, and Oppenheimer also filmed making Anwar and his friends’ films. The most exciting aspect of The Act of Killing is that the reality of historical meaning and fiction of aesthetic discourse intertwine flawlessly through film. By composing different scenarios and acting out all by themselves, including playing the victim, the butchers confront their past, with a different psychological impact on each individual. The act in the film’s title contains a rich layer of meaning, not a reaction or action, but a scene in acting.

Apart from not explaining whether Anwar Congo is his real name, he is still dandy in his old age with an ironed suit and slick pants. As a former cinema thug, cinema is no stranger to Anwar. He idolizes James Dean, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. According to Herman, one of Anwar’s junior colleagues, their massacring of the PKI in North Sumatra was more about films than ideology.

The Human Being of Anwar Congo

The PKI’s campaign to boycott Hollywood films made the opinion of the thugs plummet to an unfilled stomach because the theaters were empty. It is no coincidence that the Pemuda Pancasila office is where the victims were killed, located right across from the cinema. Anwar and his friends watched the cinema first before crossing the street to interrogate the victim to kill people happily. He was demonstrating a dance after showing his way of snaring people’s necks with wires to death.

What makes The Act of Killing such a successful documentary is its ability to be fair. Oppenheimer did not just reveal a secret truth. However, it also gives room for emotional conversations for the characters in it, especially Anwar Congo. Following a long journey of memory reconstruction, the audience saw Anwar as an ordinary human being.

Heroes

He is not just a murderer who has taken the lives of thousands of people. However, he is also a man who is close to his children and is gentle with his pet ducks. He is also a human being who can feel wrong, not just an executioner, falling into the struggle of regret, emotion and shedding tears unexpectedly. It is a documentary about cruelty in addition to stories about ordinary people and their human side.

It is straightforward when answering why Anwar and his friends are willing to open up and continue to state about the crimes they have committed and even film and make films. Simply put, they did not see the mass killings they committed in the past as a crime. Similarly, people do not consider it a crime when a member of Pemuda Pancasila laughs with juniors about how he used to rape young members of Gerwani. For Anwar, it feels like a paradise on Earth if he can get a 14-year-old. Essentially, Anwar wants to film himself and his fellow generations as examples for the younger generation and the future. As a result, the younger generation will never forget the actions of their “heroes.”

The Victim

Regardless, the process of making The Act of Killing forced Joshua Oppenheimer and his friends to confront the past. Anwar, who stated that he does not care about human rights, admitted that the older he gets, the more his sense of humanity grows. He often has nightmares, is haunted by the past. He said it was either because the victims’ souls took revenge or too late to devote emotions to film projects.

When he played the victim who was interrogated and eventually killed with his eyes blindfolded and his neck tied with wire, he could not afford to repeat the shooting twice. He called his two young grandchildren to join in watching the victim’s sadness when he saw the shooting results on the television screen. While crying, he imagined the victim’s feelings when the actor tortured him.

The Cinema’s Redemption

When cinema acts as redemption, it is never the case for Adi Zulkadry. He is also one of the big butchers at the time. However, he has his way of not feeling haunted by his actions. He stated that the reason for the killings was always based on a true-false judgment. When a belief is true, feelings of guilt will not arise. For decades, Adi freed himself from responsibility by firmly believing that the reason for all the murders he committed was right. Ironically, he made a clear statement at the end of the fiction film that decades of propaganda about the PKI’s atrocities would fall when it was screened.

People will see that the PKI killers were much crueler. Others do not mind the brutal image because that is just how they are. It is precisely what they want to show others. The Act of Killing feels deep because of the ability of Joshua and his friends to reach intimacy with Pemuda Pancasila. Cameras and recording devices invite the audience to penetrate their most private spaces. So the audience also found Anwar hanging out with his grandchildren, Adi walking in the mall with his wife and teenage daughter, Herman sleeping topless, and Yapto, the head of Pemuda Pancasila, teasing young girls with lewd jokes about moles on the genitals.

Free Man

The common thread that connects Anwar and his friends is their belief in their position as “thugs.” According to them, “thugs” is a translation of “free man” or free humans. The term “free man” is repeated throughout the film by different characters from various generations in Pemuda Pancasila. It is showing that that seems to be the narrative that they build as a standard grip. Being a thug is being a free person outside the system, supporting the status quo of power, and not playing in legal authority.

In front of the camera, without hesitation, they went to the market to ask for money from the Chinese character owners. Many studies have examined the role of thugs in Indonesian history and revolution, including paramilitary organizations such as Pemuda Pancasila. When people seem to be getting fed up with the actions of mass organizations, it could be that pessimism is getting rid of Indonesia.

The Politics of History

In addition to the audience judging it good because it opens the dark side of humanity in Indonesia’s political history, on the other hand, critics assess The Act of Killing does not have sufficient historical accuracy. It bases a testimony on Anwar himself. After all, Oppenheimer has tricked him. Thus, the audience can say that there is a difference in point of view between awareness and facts about history.

Speaking of controversy, The Act of Killing brings a reconciliation. On the other hand, the film also opens old wounds and worsens Indonesia’s image in the international world. Reconciliation is an acknowledgment of mistakes that have occurred in the past. It is not the concealment of the past mass into a traumatic and intimidating experience. While old wounds identify with incomplete healing, those that appear to heal from the outside can recur at any time. There are two questions regarding the pros and cons. Will historical events be reopened for reinterpretation, or is history left as it is now and is considered correct?

The Multidimensional Explanation of Point of View

With all such, The Act of Killing becomes a multidimensional explanation of motives in committing acts of violence. Oppenheimer has given insightful audience input not to see the history of 1965 in outline and black-and-white only. However, he brings to a most personal level the long-term impact produced by mass violence. It is on the lives and psyche of every person in Indonesian society.

It is also essential how the emphasis of the record is not on ideology or communism. However, it is on humanity and the cruelty of the massacre. In the end, it is indeed no one among those who can state the absolute truth. The documentary has become a meaningful memory from such a case. Regardless of which, it differs from a political point of view. It has pros and cons.

Bibliography

About the author

Salman Al Farisi is the owner of Calxylian and is an elitist who has enjoyed and studied various mediums. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in 2020 from the Haluoleo University, Indonesia, where he studied English Literature, Film Criticism, Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, and Literary Criticism. He lives in Kendari in his mom's basement, now unemployed and ghostwriter, life with his cats, and is looking for the future.

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