Watching the Act of Killing

Yesterday I was at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival to help the organizers lead a discussion of The Act of Killing. It is a shame that the audience was forced to make do with me as their guide: I am not a scholar of film, nor a scholar of the killings. I have never been to Medan, where the film takes place. But I have watched and appreciated The Act of Killing, and I do happen to know more than your average upstate New Yorker about Indonesia. Readers will recall my own review of this haunting film, and how I struggled to make sense of the issues of translation, deliberation, and memory that the film raised for me.

I wrote that review after having watched the film alone, once straight through and then a second time pausing to take notes. The Syracuse event was very different: with 150 other people, precisely two of whom had ever been to Indonesia (one because she was Indonesian) and the vast majority of whom had essentially no background to the events of 1965-66 and their aftermath. Watching The Act of Killing in this context raised some more difficult questions for me. That audience wanted to know more, and the film—inevitably—couldn’t tell them everything. I found myself in the position of being asked the questions that were really directed at Joshua Oppenheimer, the filmmaker. Questions like “why the focus on the etymology of preman?”, “why so much on Anwar’s teeth?”, “what was the intended audience?”

A lot of these boil down to the question of audience. This being Syracuse, with its excellent school of communications, the audience was very aware that filmmaking involves lots of deliberate choices alongside inadvertent ones, and both shape how we receive the film that we see. And so it matters that there are two versions of the film, The Act of Killing and Jagal. (There may be more, I just don’t know.) The former is the two-hour version with English subtitles that I saw. The latter is more than three hours long. I have not seen Jagal so I cannot evaluate it.

According to this interview with Oppenheimer (in Indonesian) the differences are basically in length, and the shorter version is for audiences who don’t want to sit through the long film. He is very clear that the long version is the one that won all the awards. The short version was made for commercial release because theaters wouldn’t show films about Indonesia, a country that no one knows or cares about (negara yang orang tidak peduli dan orang tidak tahu).

On the other hand, according to a comment by Triska Baju at Inside Indonesia,

And I met the co-director asking the same question, jokingly he said, “We don’t distribute the short version in Indonesia because it’s a product made for ‘sastra wangi/perfumed literature’ market, while the longer one is ‘sastra perjuangan/fighting literature’ audience. But both are good.'”

That quote suggests that there is a conscious understanding of different kinds of audiences. It’s also the case that Werner Herzog came late to the film and played an important role in shaping the version that I saw. There is nothing abnormal or sneaky about this, but it does remind us that what we are seeing is a production.

Which brings me back to the issue of translation and appreciating the complexities of Indonesia today. I must admit that, this time, the subtitling really bothered me. In my first review I noted that some of the subtitles didn’t capture the nuances of the dialog. But in some cases, I think that the subtitling is truly misleading. For example, about halfway through the film we see Anwar Congo and the associates on a local TV program. Here is a screenshot of the explanation:


It’s hard to avoid concluding that this is national TV. But it’s not: it’s a talk show on the provincial affiliate of the state-owned TV station TVRI. We actually hear the host saying just this (kita berjumpa kembali dalam program Dialog Khusus TVRI Sumatera Utara = we are back on the program Special Dialog TVRI North Sumatra), but the subtitles do not capture this.


The omission is small, and I don’t highlight it to claim that this is a regional program so it somehow excuses this horrific interview. But the audience in Syracuse seemed to interpret this as just more evidence of the killings being lauded publicly, everywhere, throughout the country. And that’s just not right, not anymore. Indonesia is a country of almost 250 million people, and it’s just not true that some low level thugs and gangsters from a regional city get to be on national TV describing their crimes.

The same comes from the use of Anonymous to refer to most Indonesians in the credits. There is no comment in the film, but to unknowing Western viewers it inevitably suggests that criticism of the killings are so unspeakable that you have to protect the identities of Indonesians who participated. But of course, Indonesians who really want to figure out who helped out with the film can do it easily. Indonesians have the internet too, and a number of the participants are right there on the screen.

The fact is, Indonesians are starting to talk about the killings. They can do that because whatever the imperfections of the current regime, it is not the New Order regime that seized power amidst the killings of 1965-66 and ruled Indonesia for over three decades. An example: The National Human Rights Commission released a report in July 2012 that declared the killings a gross violation of human rights, and has recommended that surviving perpetrators be brought to justice. That would have absolutely unthinkable 15 years previous. Yet tragically (if I may so editorialize), so few of Indonesia’s political elite are willing to take up Komnas HAM’s recommendation, and the voices of those who are are lost.

For Indonesians, Jagal is a critical addition to the national conversation, and its release will undoubtedly further this dialog. Here’s Endy Bayuni in the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s old English-language daily with wide circulation:

If only there was a way of making everyone watch The Act of Killing just once the way we had to watch Betrayal every year under Soeharto, maybe Indonesia could start an open debate about that tragic episode in the nation’s history.

It’s easy to find similar commentary in Indonesia’s online media (see e.g. here and here). For non-Indonesians without a sense of the context, though, the film leaves a different message.

And that’s a shame. You cannot truly appreciate how amazing The Act of Killing is unless you know a little something of the history and the current state of the debate, unless you can reflect on Anwar’s unwillingness to use the word “kill” until the very last scene, unless you can appreciate just how shocking it is that Jusuf Kalla visits a Pemuda Pancasila meeting in Medan (hint: it’s not shocking because PP is so powerful, it’s shocking because PP really isn’t, not as a national political force), unless you know that Sarwo Edhie is the current president’s father-in-law. Those facts don’t lend themselves to easy interpretations or simple conclusions, and I can only hope that non-specialists who watch The Act of Killing see it as the beginning of their own conversation with Indonesian history.

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