This documentary is one of the most surreal yet unflinching attempts to understand how mass murderers are able to walk freely without facing justice or accountability for their actions, even decades after the atrocities they have committed. It also explores how this impunity can affect the history which children learn and pervert the future of a society.
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, the film opens with a quote from Voltaire, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” It then begins with dancers emerging from a giant fish with a waterfall in the background. A person giving direction can be heard urging the dancers to show “peace,” “real joy,” and “happiness.”
Text appears on screen with a skate park as the backdrop. In 1965, the Indonesia government was overthrown by the military. Death squads exterminated communists. Two gangsters who engaged in massacres and torture of communists, as well as Chinese, were Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.
Oppenheimer invited Congo, who is now a celebrated founding father of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, to make a movie re-enacting their acts of torture and killing as they remember them. When given the opportunity to make a film, they chose to draw from American films that inspired them and shoot scenes in the style of classic gangster, western or musical films. This involves recruiting Indonesian women and children, whose families may have been communists that the death squads murdered.
Both Congo and Zulkadry were black market movie ticket scalpers, who would sell tickets for sold out showing of American films when they were popular. (As Congo recalls, the communists tried to ban American cinema.)
Congo was eventually given a role as a death squad leader. The office where he would torture and kill people was not far from the movie theatre and he would go to “happy movies,” sometimes “Elvis movies,” and then he would come to the office and kill when he was in a happy mood because it was easier.
One of the early scenes in the film involves Congo recounting how he tortured and killed communists and blood would go all over. He decided to adopt a method of killing that involved a wire. He developed this method after watching American cinema, where gangsters would use wires to strangle people. He chillingly demonstrates how the wire was wrapped around the neck of an individual, pulled and there would be less blood.
Ibrahim Sinik, a newspaper publisher, gleefully shares how he would provide information on communists to military officers so they could be tortured and killed. He also boasts about how his newspaper published stories to convince the public to hate communists.
The film shows a society where paramilitary leaders can choose to become politicians and bribe voters to support them. They do not believe a word they are saying in their campaigns. They do not necessarily intend to serve any people when they get elected but run because they believe they can intimidate and threaten enough people to convince them to pay money so their property is not seized.
Then, there’s the talk show on state-run television, which Congo appears to discuss the movie he is making. The host and audience applaud his role in exterminating communists. He is not confronted at all and the host does not even appear to realize she is talking about justifying mass murder when interviewing Congo (nor do members of the audience). Congo is allowed to give the paramilitary talking point that gangsters are “free men” and they are needed because they can work outside government and do what “bureaucrats” are incapable of doing.
As the film progresses, the former death squad leaders reflect more and more on their role. The production of a film with Oppenheimer is rationalized as a way to show younger generations why it was necessary to exterminate communists.
Zulkadry, when confronted, rejects all this talk these days about human rights. He says he would go the Hague and face trial before international criminal court because he is not guilty of anything. War crimes are what the winners say they are and he is revered and respected in Indonesia. He argues what is moral changes. The Geneva Conventions may have applied when they were drafted but now the world needs the Jakarta Conventions. And he mentions how President George W. Bush was able to open and operate Guantanamo Bay and the Americans were able to kill Native Americans and those involved faced no punishment.
This reaction stands in contrast to the emotional breakdown that Congo seems to have as a result of agreeing to be subjected to the method of torture he used to carry out on communists.
During a reenactment for the movie being made, the wire is tightened around his neck. It triggers a traumatic episode, as he tells those acting with him in the scene that he cannot do that again. He watches what was filmed later and appears to have a very emotional reaction. He even asks if the people he killed had the same feelings he did when he was torturing them.
There are multiple layers to this documentary. One is the immediate reality that the history of mass murder is still seen as being justified and those still alive who were responsible are respected by those in government. Another layer is the influence of American cinema and how it shaped death squad leaders’ methods and attitudes toward exterminating human beings. Yet another layer is what happens to society when it does not address the systemic problem of impunity.
Oppenheimer has publicly stated, “The film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced [yet] celebrated – in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves…. It never pretends to be an exhaustive account of the events of 1965. It seeks to understand the impact of the killing and terror today, on individuals and institutions.”
Toward the end of the documentary, a government official comes to support the film Congo and others are shooting. A recreation of a massacre and burning down of a village is taking place. Oppenheimer deliberately breaks the surreal style that has been maintained and shifts into editing the recorded scene as it should appear in a film on the crimes of war. The government official is seen saying after the scene was filmed that it was more brutal than he wanted it to be and there needs to be more “humane ways” to exterminate communists.
Governments will always come up with reasons for killing and, especially in the 21st Century, in their calculus, they will develop “humane ways” to justify killing.
Though fewer have died, the drone program of the United States is a more “humane way” of exterminating people. It is increasingly preferred because of the ease it affords the person operating the drone and the fabled precision it is supposed to have to prevent what the military likes to call “collateral damage.”
The Bush administration’s decision to torture was carefully crafted so that scars and marks would not be visible on torture victims. When the administration of President Barack Obama came to power, the officials involved were granted impunity because the administration refused to prosecute high-ranking officials. That has given certain people the ability to trumpet what they believe was accomplished without fear of being punished for their role in committing brutality.
Like Indonesia, the version of history that educates young Americans on the massacring of Native Americans is still the version the winners of that period of history would want told. It is the version that justifies mass killing as part of exploring and settling America.
It is only four or five decades since the torture and murder of military death squads in Indonesia that form the focus of this documentary. In America, it has been a hundred to two hundred years in many cases since Native Americans were exterminated and yet American government officials still are permitted to outright ignore or rationalize what took place in American history.
While there certainly are many reasons to find Indonesian society and the lavish lives of gangsters like Congo who remain at large and unpunished for their acts to be chilling, the harsh truth is there are many people like Anwar Congo or Adi Zulkadry in the world. They are not just in countries like Indoenesia. They can be found in countries that claim to be free and uphold human rights and democracy.
They are people who have successfully convinced others they have power over that what they committed were not war crimes deserving of justice. And, since we cannot expect every war criminal to be as influenced by American cinema as Congo or Zulkadry, there is little possibility they will re-enact what they did and ever be in a situation where they have to come to grips with what they were responsible for doing.