Film still from "The Act of Killing," by Joshua Oppenheimer

Film still from “The Act of Killing,” by Joshua Oppenheimer (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via

On September 30, 1965, at the height of the Cold War, a series of dramatic events near Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, were used by the country’s military to justify a killing spree that led to the death and detention of an estimated one million people.

The exact chronology of what happened and who orchestrated it is still the subject of debate, but historians generally agree that on the night of September 30, six generals of the Indonesian army, then under the governance of President Sukarno, were kidnapped and subsequently executed in the early hours of October 1.

For decades, the details of that night and the killings that followed have been suppressed and distorted by a military regime that came to power in the wake of the violence. In the aftermath, blame was laid firmly at the feet of the Communist Party, or PKI, giving the Indonesian military — and Western governments who enthusiastically supported a purge — the justification they needed to completely eradicate the country’s real and alleged Communists.

It’s one of the most overlooked massacres of the 20th century. The enduring narrative, diligently cultivated by the regime and its international supporters, is one of spontaneous violence among civilians, old feuds, and revenge; the army was not involved, the story goes.

But in 2012, a report by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (KomnasHAM) and a new documentary film, The Act of Killing, began to illuminate the events of 1965–66 in an unprecedented way.

Film still from “The Act of Killing” (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via Flickr)

The Act of Killing, a film by Joshua Oppenheimer, with co-directors Christine Cynn and an Indonesian who remains anonymous for fear of reprisals, has received significant media attention since its release last November. Filmed over seven years, it follows a group of men in the Indonesian city of Medan as they describe and reenact, often in grotesque detail, their role in the torture and execution of thousands of Communists and alleged Communist sympathizers.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the now elderly Anwar Congo, in pristine white pants and a bright green shirt, takes pains to demonstrate a method of killing he devised to solve the problem of excessive blood letting when he executed his victims. On the roof of a handbag store, where the killings took place, he carefully wraps a length of wire around a vertical pipe, asks his friend to sit on the floor (hands secured behind his back, to mimic those of the victims), and wraps the wire around his friend’s throat. “This is how to do it, without too much blood,” Congo says into the camera, taking a few paces back and imitating how he would pull on the garrote with the full force of his body.

As the film unfolds, Anwar and his friends, now reunited after so many years, reminisce about the good old days when they were “killing happily.” They take a leisurely drive through the city in an open-topped canary yellow Jeep, passing murderous landmarks, laughing as they recount stories of their killing sprees. They go on to stage elaborate, often garish and fantastical reenactments of their interrogations and murders. They brag about how they were influenced by their favorite American movies genres — film noir, Westerns, gangster movies — as well as the fantasy/horror genre popular in Indonesia.

The Act of Killing adds to a growing body of evidence and testimonies, which already includes the work of organizations like KomnasHAM, the Association of the New Order’s Victims, and 16 documentaries. “All these documentaries show the ordeals of the victims and the various forms of their victimization,” writes author and scholar Ariel Heryanto in the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies. “The Act of Killing incriminates the perpetrators of the 1965–66 killings more seriously than any of the preceding films have done.”

The release of the movie has widened a conversation about the massacre that has been intensifying recently. “For many years the discussion about the mass killings of 1965–66 has been largely the domain of area specialists or the so-called ‘Indonesianists’ and human rights activists, but this film has catapulted the issue into mainstream public debate,” Hilmar Farid, a Jakarta-based writer and scholar, told Hyperallergic by email.

In doing so, the film also leads Indonesians to reflect on the recent past. “I think that Joshua has done an incredible service in getting some of the lower level people who were engaged in the massacres to talk about them in a fashion that forces Indonesians to confront some very uncomfortable and disturbing realities of contemporary Indonesian society,” said Brad Simpson, professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968.

Still from “The Act of Killing” (click to enlarge) (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via Flickr)

In October 2012, the Indonesian news magazine Tempo took The Act of Killing as the point of departure for a bold and unusual step: carrying out its own investigation into the massacres. While Oppenheimer’s film focuses on the “gangsters” and “free men” of North Sumatra’s Medan, the perpetrators and level of state involvement varied greatly by region. “There were some places in which militias carried out the majority of the killing, and in some places the army did it,” said Simpson. “Local grievances were often exploited and used by the army to help whip up local support for the mass killings.” Tempo’s reporters fanned out to investigate the slaughter throughout the archipelago. “We found that the massacres did not take place only in East Java, Central Java and Bali – places that have frequently been cited by researchers and the media,” the editors wrote in the special report. “The killings also took place, for instance, in Sika, Flores and on an island off Palembang in Sumatra.”

The killings of the generals and the massacre that followed gave a relatively unknown general, Suharto, the opportunity to seize control of the armed forces and topple then President Sukarno in March 1966. Once installed as President in 1968, Suharto clung to power for the next 30 years.

Throughout his reign, Western leaders praised him for implementing successful economic reforms, but they conveniently ignored the endemic corruption and state-sanctioned violence that marked his rule. Suharto led brutal military campaigns to put down separatists in Western Papua and Aceh, and invaded newly independent East Timor. Estimates suggest that at least 100,000 were killed during 25 years of Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and a recent report by KomnasHAM points to “gross human rights violations” by the Indonesian military during its 30-year campaign against the Free Aceh Movement.

Methods employed in the invasion of East Timor in 1975, and later in Aceh and West Papua, were, in fact, modeled on the 1965–66 killings. “No mercy, torture, burning of villages, rapes, crude intelligence operations and, most notoriously, in the spirit of 65, the organization and financing of lumpen pro-military militias among the local population,” wrote scholar Benedict Anderson in his 2008 essay about Suharto’s death for the New Left Review. The US was once again implicated. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, both supported Suharto in his East Timor campaign; President Carter later increased military aid to Indonesia.

Film still from “The Act of Killing” (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via Flickr)

Thousands of Indonesians have now seen the The Act of Killing at underground screenings in 95 cities across Indonesia. The filmmakers have not sought government approval for the movie, fearing censors will ban it and uphold paramilitary violence to prevent further screenings.  However, Drafthouse Films recently announced that the film will be available to anyone in Indonesia starting on September 30, in perpetuity, via a geo-blocked channel on the film’s website.

The Act of Killing has been met with both criticism and acclaim among Indonesian audiences who have attended the screenings. “People have become more critical of the film,” said Jakarta-based scholar Farid. “Some despised the film for its disturbing ‘Orientalist’ image of savage Indonesians, but I think they are barking up the wrong tree. The film is about a very specific group of people who were involved in heinous crimes against other Indonesians … I think what Indonesians should be ashamed of is the fact that these people are still at large and even part of the ruling elite in this country. Of course, this is not unique, it has happened in many countries with a violent past, from Guatamala to Germany.”

Some Indonesians fear the outcome if the film is available to a wider audience. As Pangeran Siahaan wrote in the Jakarta Globe, “some suggest that it would be better for now if it is kept limited so the closed circle of intellectuals and thinkers can make it as a learning object without the brouhaha it might cause if it’s released publicly.”

And while it wasn’t Oppenheimer’s intention, Simpson suggests that by focusing on the gangsters and militiamen of Medan, the film could play into the hands of Indonesian officials who want to frame these massacres as “unofficial acts of people running amok, or the ad hoc response of local actors … to view these as less coordinated, less state sponsored than they in fact were.”

In Indonesia, the events of 1965–66 and the role of the military have long been buried under layers of propaganda. Suharto instilled a deep fear of “communists” among Indonesians, maintained in part by the state-sponsored film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30S/PKI), which is referenced frequently throughout The Act of Killing. Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI shows, in grisly, bloody detail, the military regime’s narrative of the kidnapping and execution of the six generals at the hands of the apparently treasonous Communist Party. It’s powerful and memorable in the gruesome way it depicts the generals’ torture and execution: the officers castrated and their eyes gouged out — all at the hands of “naked” Communist women.

Elementary schoolchildren across Indonesia were required to watch the four-and-a-half-hour long film at least once a year during Suharto’s rule. Reinforcing its message with textbooks and field trips to the Museum of the Extreme Left, the regime instilled in the nation’s children a sense of gratitude towards the army and their leader, ‘Bapak’ Suharto — father of the nation, for taking power and saving them from the Communist threat. Knowledge of any state involvement in the massacres was suppressed.

“My generation,” wrote journalist Farah Wardani in the Jakarta Globe, “who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, were indoctrinated with the opposite ‘fact:’ that the PKI was the villain, the barbaric sect who tried to overthrow the Sukarno government by murdering seven generals on Sept. 30 1965, before Gen. Suharto and the army saved the day.”

Film still from “The Act of Killing” (click to enlarge) (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via

The Act of Killing is as much about the present as it is about the past. Peppered with subtle references to the brutality of the years that followed the killings, it illustrates the creation of a culture in which political assassination and other forms of violence were normalized. “The film emphasizes continuity with [Suharto’s] New Order,” Joshua Oppenheimer told Hyperallergic by email, “but this is not a history of Suharto’s rise to power … it is about the terrible effects of that traumatic past in the present.”

The most insidious legacy of the state terror inflicted on Indonesia by the military dictatorship, so clearly conveyed in Oppenheimer’s film, is fear and impunity. “The culture of fear is real, especially in North Sumatra where the killers are very much a part of the ruling elite,” said Farid.

The Act of Killing shows how paramilitaries still play an influential role in Indonesian society: they hold mass rallies, support political candidates, and impose protection rackets on small business owners. In one scene, we witness a local paramilitary leader, Safit Pardede, extorting market stall owners, especially ethnic Chinese ones, quite openly in front of Oppenheimer’s camera. Another leader boasts that fear allows him and his fellow thugs to have anything they want, since people are too scared to challenge them.

“Indonesians are still grappling with the legacies of Suharto and the legacies of the mass killings,” said Simpson. “They’re also grappling with the legacy of Western support for a deeply corrupt and authoritarian and anti-democratic regime that will take generations to extirpate from Indonesian society.”

In the film, Herman Koto, a paramilitary leader and Anwar’s friend, sums up the culture succinctly. Against the backdrop of scenes from a political rally for Suharto’s ruling party, he says, “Nobody believes in what we’re campaigning for … They look happy, but inside they’re pissed off. ‘Fuck this shit,’ they’re thinking.”

KomnasHAM, which was actually established under Suharto in 1995, issued its report last July, based on a three-year investigation and the testimonies of 349 witnesses. It represented the first acknowledgement that the killings of 1965–66 were orchestrated by the Indonesian state, and called for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. But the current government, which includes many former military officials and others who served in Suharto’s regime, has rejected the  findings. “Define gross human rights violation! Against whom? What if it happened the other way around?” said Djoko Suyanto, a former commander-in-chief of Indonesia’s armed forces and currently the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, while attending a meeting of the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee. “This country would not be what it is today if it didn’t happen. Of course there were victims [during the purge], and we are investigating them.”

Film still from “The Act of Killing” (courtesy Drafthouse Films, via Flickr)

While evidence mounts, it’s unlikely that current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will yield to demands for an apology for the killings, let alone reconciliation. Parliament passed a law in 2004 establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but Yudhoyono was reluctant to appoint a commissioner, and then the newly created Constitutional Court annulled the commission altogether in 2006.

“I just wonder how we can make peace with ourselves as a nation and society if we keep on refusing to embrace the bitter truth of history,” wrote Pangeran Siahaan in the Jakarta Globe. “Our journey to reconciliation is far from over.”

The Act of Killing is currently playing at theaters in New York and around the country.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Title IX celebrates 50 years, the trouble with pronouns, a writer’s hilarious response to plagiarism allegations, and much more.

Natasja Sheriff

Natasja Sheriff covers politics, religion, and media around the world, with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Reuters, WNYC, Malaysiakini, and The Revealer....

One reply on “When a Documentary Film Unveils a Massacre”

  1. It should be noted that the US Congress and the Ford and Carter administrations armed Suharto and encouraged the ethnic cleansing of East Timor.

    They did so because the country happened to sit very close to a deep submarine trench that leads into the China Sea.

    The US didn’t want a Chinese or Russian listening post on the island that could detect its submarines as they traveled through the trench.

    All of the military equipment used by Indonesia in East Timor from 1975 to 1979 was US provided. It should also be noted that the death toll amongst the East Timorese was proportionally equivalent to attempted genocide, not mere mass murder.

Comments are closed.