If you like watching uncomfortable and ethically ambiguous films then the new film from Joshua Oppenheimer is the godfather of worrying documentaries. The entire film is a meditation on suffering and humiliation told in such a radical form that the audience becomes complicit in the horrors that are presented. The filmmakers have contacted thugs and gangsters that undertook the extermination of ‘communists’ in the ‘60s in Indonesia and asked them to tell their story by making a film of their own; thereby creating the cruelest and most uncomfortable meta-documentary/making-of films that I have ever seen.
The film does not spend long giving context to the Indonesian killings that occurred in 1965-66, so with that in mind I feel that I can make a few comments on the content of the film without really knowing anything about that era. Oppenheimer does not try to educate the audience about that time, but instead uses those events as a catalyst to explore Indonesian politics and culture today.
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The film begins by introducing Anwar Congo, an elderly gangster who was present at the birth of a paramilitary organisation called Pemuda Pancasila, and Adi Zulkadry, a leading member of the organisation. They are feared local gangsters who have spent their lives torturing and killing people as well as extorting money, which they happily do on camera, and taking and selling drugs. Oppenheimer has approached them with the idea of making a film in order to tell their story of the uprising in the ‘60s and the history of the country since. The film then splits into two interwoven sections: following the gangsters as they prepare to make their film talking about the history of the violence, and the actual production of the film as they rehearse scenes of brutal interrogation and kidnappings.
There scenes that follow the thugs as they make their absurd and comically bad film are essentially light relief for the more traditional ‘history’ segments of the documentary where people explain what life was like under the dictatorship. The amount of information is staggering and almost every scene reveals a horrific truth about the past and present Indonesia. To recap every detail would do a disservice to the film so if you really want to learn about the country then it is essential viewing, but it is worth highlighting a few of the more extraordinary moments in some detail…
The first part that really shocked me was when we meet Ibraham Sinik the newspaper publisher. He freely admits that people were tortured and killed in his newsrooms as they were interrogated for information, before claiming “whatever we asked we changed the answers to make them look bad…As a newspaper man it was my job to make the public hate them [the communists]”. This admission shows a level of cynicism and corruption that might make western audiences shudder, yet is the kind of self-censorship and propaganda that Chomsky has been talking about for years. If you separate the killing from the propaganda (which is admittedly difficult) then this sort of press demonisation is happening across the world.
Another deeply disturbing scene was one in which the current vice president makes a speech to the paramilitary saying that if everyone worked for the government then they would “be a nation of bureaucrats” and therefore a powerful paramilitary was a good thing. The misinterpretation of the word ‘gangsters’ to mean ‘free men’ allows the government to celebrate the group as entrepreneurial instead of lawless. He later goes on to say that you “need to beat people up sometimes”. This overt collusion between the sitting government and a violent paramilitary that has 3 million members makes the country look like a pretty scary place and suggests that not a lot has changed in 50 years.
The most depressing moment for me was a scene in which one of the former executioners is asked about his definition of war crimes. His response is simply that ‘war crimes are defined by the winners’ and that no one punishes Bush for Guantanamo or the American settlers for the genocide of the American Indians and that if anyone wants a perpetual war they should ‘bring it on’. Disgusting as his apology for torture and violence is, he has a point. If American wants to police the world then it needs to have its own house in order (two clichés that essentially mean nothing…)