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The work investigates the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing by director Joshua Oppenheimer on its representation of genocide, strategies of authenticity and how the protagonist of the movie, a former killer in the Indonesian genocide from 1965-66 changes his view on the past and what he has done. By using the concepts of the ten stages of genocide and the nexus between genocide and evolution of an economical world system the work depicts how the same stages of genocidal behavior is still working in nowadays Indonesia to maintain the power and the prevention of the persecutors of the past. The role of the media in this process and the performing of denial are one of the crucial points to it. By working with theories of social memory, trauma and re-enactment the work shows how these concepts not only help us to understand the change of the perception of the past are working on the actor, but also that the movie is a chance for a new kind of remembrance of the events in Indonesia. As the author can show The Act of Killing leaves us with the uncomfortable question of what we've done in such an extreme situation and if the attempt for a better economic position in a globalized world the killing of hundred thousands of people is worth it.

“But we have to show… that this is the history!

This is how we are! So in the future people will remember!

We in our simple way, step by step will tell the story

of what we did when we were young! "

Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing[1]


In the documentary The Act of Killing (DK / Nor / UK 2012) director Joshua Oppenheimer presents us Anwar Congo, a former ticket collector at a cinema in Medan, Indonesia and murderer in the mass killings following a failed coup d'etat by communist generals in 1965 and 1966. He follows Anwar, his former accomplices and friends when they re-enact their actions of torture, killing and persecution of men, women and whole villages "In whatever ways they wished."[2] By doing more and more accurate re-enactments of torture scenes Anwar Congo at the end of the movie realizes what he had done to his victims nearly 50 years ago and the viewer catches a sense of regret in Anwars statements and conclusions.

The take-over of the government by Lieutenant-General Suharto after a failed communist coup on October 1, 1965 was the starting point of a genocide in which about 500,000 people were killed between October 1965 and March 1966 [3]. But it was also an endpoint in a struggle for governmental and military power in post-colonial Indonesia after declaring its independence from the Netherlands and occupation by Japan during World War 2 on August 17, 1945. As Cribb puts it, "Indonesia was not so much one nation-of-intent as three"[4] with Islamist, communist and developmentalist movements, dominated by the last ones. In 1957 President Sukarno suspended parliamentary rule and installed an authoritarian “Guided Democracy” based on the ideology of NASAKOM, where neither one of the three contesters (nationalism, religion and communism) should prevail. In a period of economic decline due to rejection of "Neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism (and thus to foreign investment)"[5]and an uprising support for the Communist party with a membership of three million in 1965 the internal tensions between Sukarno's government, the army high command, Islamist and communists was shattered by a coup against seven leading anti-communist generals. But the disorganized actions of the revolutionists became an easy assist for the forces from the army's Strategic Reserve led by Lieutenant-General Suharto who put an end to the communist coup within days.

What followed is to be considered as genocide on whether real or accused members of the Communist party (PKI), other organizations as related labor unions and members of the Chinese ethic minority in Indonesia. The persecution, torturing, examination and killing was carried out by military units, local militias, para-commandos, youth organizations and "Anti-communist special forces", which were provided with weapons, equipment, training and encouragement by the army. [6]

What nowadays is considered as genocide has its origin in the book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe by Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin and is subject of an ongoing scientific and also emotional discussion. For this work I will refer to different authors and their contributions to a definition of genocide.

The Act of Killing shows us temporary re-enactments of torture and murder by the killers which happened during the genocide in 1965-66. In my analysis I will discuss that the documentary not only depicts the extermination, but ten possible stages of genocide, as listed by Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, which includes Classification, Symbolization, Discrimination, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Persecution, Extermination other Denial.[7] By showing these facts and citing Martin Walser "Most representations of the past are therefore information about the present"[8] I will argue that the movie not only depicts the past, but also convey the sense of an ongoing possibility for a new enforcement of some stages of genocide including the most fatal one - extermination - in present Indonesia. So I want argue, that The Act of Killing proves the arguments of Mark Levene's book Genocide in the Age of the Nation State where the author demonstrates genocide as a possible effect in the global expansion of the idea building modern nation states "In search of some radical, or accelerated short-cut to empowerment."[9] The movie evokes this ongoing development in Indonesia with different strategies and is also closely connected to Anwar Congo and his murderous colleagues.

The quote of Anwar on the top of this chapter let us not only know the intention of Anwar doing this film, but also the intentions of many actors of re-enactments. They don't just want to act "Like it was, but to get it right as it will be in the future of the archive to which they see themselves contributing", as Rebecca Schneider found out in interviews with such actors in civil war re-enactments in the US. [10] In comprising different scientific approaches concerning social memory, differences between personal memory and official state history, trauma theory and re-enactment I will show why and how Anwar Congo faces the brutal truth of his past in the re-enactment of the re-enactments of torture scenes of American gangster movies from 1965 in the present. This will give an argument to the largely acknowledged parallels of movie and trauma and how the repetition of and the reflection on the act of killing could uncover a personalized memory for the persecutors, victims and viewers in deconstructing the official state history.

[1] The Act of Killing DVD (Dk / Nor / Uk 2012, 159 min., Koch Media 2014)

[2] Opening statement of the movie, 00:03:29, The Act of Killing DVD

[3] Several authors name but also discuss these figures in his / her articles and books. For a detailed discussion of the several options to provide death toll see: Robert Cribb, How many deaths? Problems in the statistics of massacre in Indonesia (1965-1966) and East Timor (1975-1980). In: Ingrid Wessel, Georgia Wimhöfer (Ed.), Violence in Indonesia (Hamburg: Abera, 2001) pp-82-99.

[4] Robert Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 1965-1966. In: Journal of Genocide Research Vol.3 (No.2, 2001) pp.219-239. Here: 226

[5] Ibid. 230

[6] Ibid. 233

[7] Gregory H. Stanton, The Ten Stages of Genocide.http://www.genocidewatch.net, online:

[8] Martin Walser, Talk about Germany (Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, ​​1988) 78, cited in: Aleida Assmann, How true are memories? In: Harald Welzer, The social memory. History, memory, transmission (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2001) pp.103-122, here: 116.

[9] Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State. Volume I: The Meaning of Genocide. (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005) p.183

[10] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains. Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (Abingdon, New York: Taylor & Franics 2011) p.10

“Both - historiography and fiction - organize

the discourse about the past and claim for themselves,

To be an expert on collective memory. "[1]

2.1 Visual history

First mentioned for the historiographical work with photography by Gerhard Jagschitz in 1991, Gerhard Paul suggested the term Visual History for the research of all picture-based sources in 2006. This should not only concern the depicted, but also the visuality of history and the historicity of the visual. [2] The importance of movies for our perception of the present and past emphasized the film theorist Knut Hickethier in 1997. He argued that hundred years of motion picture not only means hundred years of movie history, but also hundred years of history, where movies and TV played a big role in historical processes by production of historical perception, modulation of identities and mentalities, mediation and critique of ideologies, and a change of the public as witnesses, manipulators or absents. [3]

This provides us not only with a theoretical position to analyze movies by their production surrounding political situation, actors, directors and Mise en Scene[4]. It is one of my main arguments of how Anwar Congo killed people back in the 1960s and also how he remembered the killings in the documentary. Movies and other picture based media constitute such a powerful framework for the perception of history that they can substitute the experience of the contemporaries. [5]

2.2 Documentary film

The problem and also the solution of Anwar Congo re-enacting his past is also a big issue for movies and especially documentaries like The Act of Killing too - it is authenticity. In earlier scientific discussions authenticity was a dominant issue of the documentary where facts, information and education played a big role. In opposition to this the fictional film has its main tasks where phantasy, artistic freedom and entertainment. [6]

After the linguistic turn the difference between the two genres is not their relationship to a pre-pictural reality anymore, but is constituted from the result of perception, expectations, and media usage of the viewer. [7] For this, documentaries are constituted through a claimed and accepted direct reference to a from the presentation independent reality of a pre-medial objectivity ("[...] to a reality of a pre-media reality that is independent of the filmic (re) presentation [?]"). [8] Authenticity for this is a mode of interpretation by the viewer which can be evolved by “authenticity signals”.

These signals can direct the viewer's reception and let them recognize the intervention of a medium e.g. by a notice of the validity of the depicted. In The Act of Killing This is made by an introductory statement on the DVD by famous German director and producer Werner Herzog, which starts even before the main menu of the DVD appears. The movie itself begins with a short written overview of the reasons and the aim of it. Beside this, Michael Hattendorf in his essential work about documentaries lists four other authenticity strategies: validity of occurrence, credibility of the author and the communicator, acceptance by the consumer and the condition of reception. [9] I will use these theoretical positions to show how the movie builds up its authenticity in the first 10 minutes of it.

2.3 Re-enactment

One main goal of documentarists is the reconstruction of the past without intervention of the director. But Hattendorf points out, that only because there are no stage directions, it doesn't mean that there are no interventions: The pre-production, camera, montage and the influence due to the presence of the film team affect the perception of a documentary . [10] Nevertheless one strategy for reconstruction and the main object of director Oppenheimer's movie is the re-enactment of the killings of 1965-66. One reason for the rising popularity of re-enactments in theaters, TV documentaries or as part of a public history by re-enactments of big battle scenes, is an increasing "Fundamental feeling of insecurity about the status and the authenticity of images" in a world, where a "Permanent availability of images, […] any picture at any time can become its own simulacrum."[11]

The actors of such re-enactments construct and destroy historical distance at once and transform representation into embodiment. Not only for them, but also for us when they "Replace the witnesses 'or participants' existing collective knowledge of the past with direct and often also physical (living, in person) experience of history."[12] If this last sentence stands for destroying distance then the "Complex and in-depth reflection of the mediation of memory"[13] constructs historical distance, giving us the chance to think about the continuously restructuring of our memory. Both happens to Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing and us during re-enact and watching the re-enactment as I will show later more detailed. The reason for doing so and the assumed intention of the director is that

“[R] e-enactment seems, as a form of representation, strangely well equipped to address moments of collective trauma and anxiety. Almost as if, taking a Debordian turn, that the re-enactment operates as the uncanny of the spectacle. "[14]

Also re-enactment has a tradition in law courts and site inspections of crime scenes, where "Every effort is made to replicate the original events and context of the crime as exactly as possible"[15] which is quite interesting for our context where the perpetrator is intent to make this effort by himself. He guides us through his own court case to open the closed box of personal memory which is obstructed by the collective memory and official state history of the Indonesian government since 1965.

2.4 Cultural and Social Memory

The theory of collective or cultural memory was developed in several works by Aleida and Jan Assmann since the mid-1980s and described in Jan Assmann's book The cultural memory (Munich 1997). He differentiates the communicative memory of the contemporaries from cultural memory which contents an absolute past and is transmitted by myths, symbols and feasts with specialized bearers of tradition. [16] In context to my work Assmann´s statement of the alliance between rulership and memory is remarkable, where he describes the government´s need for ancestry (or the retrospective site of memory) and future (prospective site). For this the leaders want to be remembered by monuments and they make sure that their deeds and stories are told and documented. [17] The transition from communicative to cultural memory is ensured by the media, which provide the possibility of getting a witness the past. [18] In the case of Indonesia the school kids' obligation to watch the anti-communist propaganda movie Pengkhianatan G30S / PKI (Engl. Treachery of G30 / PKI) year after year in the last week of September in cinemas and the annual TV broadcast supports both purposes. [19] It's also a possible explanation what Anwar and his friends urged to show what they have done and why he made the statement which stands on the beginning of this work.

Taking in account the importance of the media in building the cultural memory Harald Welzer evolved the concept of the social memory. He describes interactions, recordings, pictures and spaces as media of social practice building the past. Even if they are not made by the purpose to constitute tradition (like fictional movies) they are transporting history and building the past by social practice. [20] These practices of building history are not only made by our communicative memory but considerably more in unconscious, not intentionally ways, which Welzer describes as doing history.[21] The interesting aspect of these thoughts is the duality of how Anwar Congo changes his perspective of past and memory and what happens to the viewer watching the movie.

2.5 Genocides

I will restrict the discussion of “what is” and “how comparable is” genocide to a brief introduction to the contributions of Raphael Lemkin and Mark Levene to whom I will refer in my analysis of the movie. The most interesting fact of Lemkin's book by 1944 and his suggestions to the UN is his broader definition of genocide than the 1948 issued central Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (also UNC). There genocide is clearly defined as "Acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."[22] For Lemkin it was not only the need for an "Immediate destruction" but also and more comprehensive "The disintegration of the political and social institutions of the group" including the "destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. "[23]

Interestingly enough, two main concerns of Lemkin were withdrawn in the Article II, which are important for this work and the genocide in Indonesia: Political groups as victims and the cultural elements of Lemkin´s suggestions as "prohibition of the national language, destruction of books, documents and monuments, and objects of historical artistic or religious value. "[24] Another key element of Lemkin's proposal which was excluded is the occurrence of "All forms of propaganda tending by their systematic and hateful character to provoke genocide, or tending to make it appear as a necessary, legitimate or excusable act."[25] But this point is crucial for understanding the behavior of public and the murderers when we take in account the thoughts of the preceding chapters.

Mark Levene tries to figure out how the extinction of a particular group could occur and his central thesis is the affinity of genocide to "The evolution and ultimate crystallization of an international system of nation states."[26]We have to face the fact, as Levene wrote, that the phenomenon only appears in extraordinary circumstances of acute state and social crises, though it requires an exceptional event - or trigger - which drives the potential perpetrators over the edge. [27]

Levene's conclusion is the starting point for one of my questions. He states that genocide became a global phenomenon only after World War II and the European post-colonial era where an expansion of the nation state to all hemispheres got started. This led to a race against the more (economical) advanced states which bred instability, obsession and paranoia and gave rise to a psychological condition for genocide. [28]

Levene describes the particular condition of such a state calling it

"[...] a chronic strong state - weak state syndrome. By this is meant a state that believes that it is strong, or at least should be strong, but at the same time perceives all sorts of limitations preventing this from being recognized. ”[29]

For this, new regimes or new states put the blame of a diminished present in contrary to a better past on minorities which have no concrete place in the modern nation state. They are often seen as somebody's else's foreign bodies which don't fit into the agenda of "invention of tradition" (such as a common past and culture) or are contributing to internationalism as communists did and still do. This could lead to a misperception of a dark menace or "A rupture with reality"[30] which only needs a trigger like a coup d'etat to start genocide.

This shows how the mass killings in Indonesia could get started and could be termed as genocide. When we think of the long time General Suharto's regime could remain on power this is also evidence for the threefold functionality of genocide regime consolidation, expansion other maintenance which is described by Catherine Barnes. In her article on the functional utility of genocide she puts the Indonesian genocide of 1965/66 into the first category. [31]

[1] Günter Riederer, Film and history. The current relationship in a difficult relationship. In: Gerhard Paul (Ed.), Visual history. A study book (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) pp.96-113, here: 101

[2] Gerhard Paul, From historical imagery to visual history. An introduction. In: Paul (Ed.), Visual history. pp.7-36, here: 25

[3] Knut Hickethier (Ed.) Et al, The movie in the story (Berlin: Edition Sigma, 1997) pp.8-9

[4] Camera, light, set design of a scene.

[5] Paul, Visual history, p. 19th

[6] Waltraud> Wara Films that tell stories. Film analysis as media culture analysis. (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011) p. 19th

[7] Ibid, p. 20th

[8] Ibid, p. 235

[9] Michael Hattendorf, Documentary & Authenticity. Aesthetics and pragmatics of a genre. (Konstanz: Ölschlager, 1994) p.19

[10] Ibid, 217

[11] Inke Arns, Gabriele Horn (Ed.), History Will Repeat Itself. Strategies of Re-enactment in contemporary (media) art and performance. (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2007) p.7

[12] Ibid, 59

[13] Ibid, 61

[14] Rod Dickinson, Crumb mailinglist, December 8, 2005, cited in: Ibid, 61, 63

[15] Iain McCalman, Paul A. Pickering (Ed.), Historical reenactment. From Realism to the Affective Turn. (London: Palgrace Macmillan, 2010) p.124

[16] Jan Assmann, The cultural memory. Scripture, Memory and Political Identity in Early Advanced Cultures. (Munich: C.H.Beck, 21997) pp.48-59

[17] Ibid. 70-86

[18] Aleida Assmann, Jan Assmann, Yesterday in today. Media and social memory. In: Klaus Merten, Siegfried J. Schmidt, Siegfried Weischenberg (Ed.), The reality of the media. An introduction to communication science. (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994) pp.114-140, here: 120

[19] I also got this information confirmed by an Indonesian born German. See also: Ariel Heryanto, Where Communism never dies: Violence, trauma and narration in the last Cold War capitalist authoritarian state. In: International Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 147 (No. 2 1999) pp.147-177. Here: 154

[20] More detailed in: Harald Welzer, The social memory. In: Welzer, memory, pp.9-24, here: 15-18

[21] Ibid, Jan.

[22] Cited in: Levene, Genocide, 35

[23] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944) p.79, cited in: Ibid, 43

[24] Ibid, 45

[25] Ibid, 46

[26] Ibid, 21

[27] Ibid, 51

[28] Ibid, 144-182

[29] Ibid, 186

[30] Ibid, 201

[31] Catherine Barnes, The functional utility of genocide: towards a framework for understanding the connection between genocide and regime consolidation, expansion and maintenance. In: Journal of Genocide Research Vol. 7 (No.3 2005) pp.309-330. Here: 325

In his introduction to Visual History Gerhard Paul emphasized that there is no method or royal road for analyzing media. Instead he recommends an “eclectic method mix” as named by Karin Hartewig and first published in Gerhard Jagschitz 'groundbreaking article Visual history where he proposed hermeneutical and semiological methods with historical contextualizing and comparison. [1]

The analysis and interpretation of The Act of Killing is conducted by several methods which are grounded on Knut Hickethier's Film and television analysis and Michael Hattendorfs Documentary and authenticity. By examining the movie by his film-strategic aspects I will combine them in a close reading with theoretical aspects mentioned above and historical facts of the Indonesian Genocide to answer my thesis.

Hickethier divides his method of film analysis in four divisions - Visual, Audio, Narration and Actor. [2] I will refer to the main aspects of his work in the examining part of this text. For the analysis of documentaries as The Act of Killing, Hickethier is referring to Hattendorfs work when describing the five types of the documentaristic authentication which are a dominance of word and picture, an equal ratio of visual and verbal symbols, reconstructive and meta-diegetic staging. [3]

Like in the analysis of fictional films the same divisions can be examined with special remarks to the documentary. Important for its authenticity are discussions and talks where the participants are mostly unaware of the camera, which visualizes a “deeper truth” of the spoken. [4] The editing in opposition to the fictional film is a potential disturbing factor for authenticity which can be avoided by long camera shots without cuts. [5] It gets more complicated when we come to the point of reconstruction. Many directors of documentaries see themselves as observer or bystander [6] “of how it really is”, to bother the words of the historian Leopold von Ranke. But in The Act of Killing, director Oppenheimer provides the actors of his film with the stages and cameras to reconstruct and re-enact their story, only to observe what they make out of it.

For Hattendorf the most crucial points to receive a high impression of authenticity are

  • Aggressive actions of a group of people (mob)
  • A camera in bird perspective, which is within the action
  • Long camera shots
  • Original language
  • Lay actors
  • Authenticity of the site. [7]

The last point of the analysis is the meta-diegetic level, where the actors reflect their activities not only for the viewers and the director, but also for themselves, which is important for the development of my thesis in Anwars changes.

Based on these methodological grounds I will take into account interviews with director Joshua Oppenheimer, research studies of the Indonesian genocide, re-enactment, and information provided on the website of http://www.genocidewatch.org for my analysis of the movie.

[1] Gerhard Jagschitz, Visual history. In: The audiovisual archive Vol. 29/30 (1991) pp.23-51. Here: 39ff.

[2] Knut Hickethier, Film and television analysis. (Stuttgart, Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 5th updated and expanded edition, 2012)

[3] Hattendorf, documentary, 312ff.

[4] Ibid, 141

[5] Ibid, 170

[6] Ibid, 215

[7] Ibid, 227-231

4.1 The Act of Killing

Produced in 2012, first interviews with director Joshua Oppenheimer in cinema magazines appeared in summer 2013. In July 2013 philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek wrote a short essay about the film, concentrating on the trend of “privatizing public space”. [1] In the first quarter of 2014 two articles and one interview with the director by two historians and specialists in South-East Asia studies, John Roosa from the University of British Columbia and Robert Cribb from the Australian National University were published. The former also wrote a brief introduction of the historical context for the website of the movie.

In both interviews the production and development of the movie is questioned. In the interview with Melis Behlil director Oppenheimer tells the evolution of the movie from his 2003 piece The Globalization Tapes. For this he interviewed union workers and descendants of in plantation unions organized workers which were killed in 1965. Though these people didn´t want to talk to him about the past, they told him to talk to the perpetrators, which in some cases were still their neighbors. [2] Talking about the re-enactment from which Oppenheimer says that it was not intentional in the beginning but "Evolved organically" he underlines the connection between re-enactment, trauma and making the film as self-referential act. [3] Also in both interviews the director stresses the phrase that the movie is not so much about the past but more about the present situation in Indonesia. [4]

A critical position to the movie takes the specialist on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 Robert Cribb. In a short article from 2014 he calls the depiction of the event "Deeply misleading", criticizing that "The military is invisible in the [...] representation of the massacres." He accuses the movie to emphasize the "Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other" in times the crucial role of the army got evident. [5] When he additionally doubts the documentary character of the film in writing "It seems staged"[6] I would assume that Cribb didn´t get the full context of the movie and didn´t know about the full purpose of director Oppenheimer, even when I agree to his first point of criticism.

4.2 Genocide in Indonesia 1965-66

There are three big concerns in the last 15 years of scientific discussion of the 1965-66 massacres since the end of the Suharto regime: the death toll, the role of the army enabling the mass killings and persecutions, and the extent of killings in the Chinese community.

Beginning with Robert Cribb's research and his book from 1990, The Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Melbourne, 1990), a series of articles and works were published at the turn of the millennium. Another series of articles were released about 5 years ago. In his book chapter How many deaths? Cribb not only discusses the highly political issue of death statistics, he gives us a range from 100,000 to two million of estimated victims only to proof us the number of 500,000 people killed later on. [7]

Long before the release of The Act of Killing the Indonesian born historian Ariel Heryanto wrote an article where he shows imposingly how the Indonesian regime maintained the fear of a communist enemy on the archipelago even after the end of Communism and Cold War - and in still doing so, how this fear became a kind of life of its own far beyond reality. [8] Also Mary S. Zurbuchen made a contribution to this phenomenon and asks for the elements which can constitute a new collective past after the fall of Suharto's regime. When there were efforts of president Abdurrahman Wahid back in 2000 to demystify the communist threat militias and Islamic groups revolted against it and "[T] he phantom of communist revival was invoked in early 2001."[9]In the same issue of Asian Survey Ann Laura Stoler in context to Mark Levene's work on how genocide in the post-colonial era spread around the world, asks for a broader perspective on the 1965 actions taking in account the time period from independence until the 60s. [10]

In a 2009 article Robert Cribb and Charles Coppel investigated the myth of anti-Chinese massacres in the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia, which evidence we also could conclude by watching The Act of Killing. They provide us with arguments that "There is simply no evidence for a special targeting of Chinese for murder during this period"[11] and connect the narrative of anti-Chinese violence with European anti-Semitism which can be monitored in Asia since the seventeenth century. [12]

Even when there were no mass killings there was violence against them which could be seen as stages of genocide when we follow Stanton's ten stages. There were deportations, smashing and looting of Chinese shops and houses, beating of teachers, rape of girls, plundering and detention camps. [13] There was physical violence and discriminatory regulations like closing of schools and newspapers, restricted access to education and payments to security forces for protection against mob violence after 1966. [14] But as Coppel already concluded in 1983 "The total number of Chinese killed can scarcely have exceeded two thousand"[15], 200 of them killed in a riot against the Chinese minority in the city of Medan [16], where The Act of Killing what filmed. For this the movie could perceive a misinterpretation in overemphasizing the role of the Chinese minority killed.

Cribb and Coppel point out, that the misinterpretation of the Chinese killings as a racial motivated genocide derives from different points. Referring to Stanton's work they see his steps generating a "Serious moral dilemma for historians" by challenging the myth of a Chinese genocide would diminish the perception of the treatment of the Chinese minority as a major human rights issue. [17] Referring to the Holocaust they argue that the misinterpretation shows that the analytical work on it cannot be applied to other parts of the world as simple as it seems.

In the discussion of why the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66 are considered as genocide Robert Cribb in an article from 2002 argues that the Indonesian case gives us strong argument how political cleansing can also be ethnic cleansing. [18] In destroying one of the three ideological and social streams Cribb argues that the killings "Was not merely an intense political conflict, it was the impoverishment of a national ideal, the extermination of a nation as it has existed in the minds of millions of Indonesians."[19]

Based on the works on the movie and the genocide I will now provide a more elaborate and detailed screening of the The Act of Killing. I will connect the theoretical positions of genocide and its aftermath in Indonesia with the representations in the movie to show how Anwar Congo get aware of his role as main actor in a genocide and why the film evokes a sense for the actual situation in Indonesia concerning the past and the present.

[1] Slavoj Žižek, Living a fiction. In: New Statesman, July 12, 2013, 44-46, online:

[2] Melis Behlil, The Act of Killing. An interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. In: Cineaste (Summer 2013) pp.26-31. Here: 27

[3] Ibid, 28-29

[4] John Roosa, Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. In: Rethinking History (2014) pp.1-10. Here: 7

[5] Robert Cribb, The Act of Killing. In: Critical Asian Studies Vol. 46 (No. 1, 2014) pp.147-149. Here: 147

[6] Ibid, 148

[7] Cribb, How many deaths? 82

[8] Heryanto, Where Communism never dies.

[9] Mary S. Zurbuchen, History, Memory, and the "1965 Incident" in Indonesia. In: Asia Survey Vol. 42 (No. 4, July / August 2002) pp.564-581. Here: 573

[10] Ann Laura Stoler, On the Uses and Abuses of the Past in Indonesia. Beyond the Mass Killings of 1965. In: Asia Survey Vol. 42 (No. 4, July / August 2002) pp.642-650.

[11] Robert Cribb, Charles A. Coppel, A genocide that never was: explaining the myth of anti-Chinese massacres in Indonesia, 1965-66. In: Journal of Genocide Research Vol. 11 (No. 4, December 2009) pp.447-465. Here: 448

[12] Ibid, 456ff.

[13] Ibid, 451

[14] Ibid, 458

[15] Charles A. Coppel, Indonesian Chinese in Crisis. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1983) p. 58, as cited in: Ibid, 451

[16] Ibid, 450

[17] Cribb, Coppel, Genocie that never was, 459

[18] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 222

[19] Ibid, 237

This chapter will have three central points. In a first approach I will show how the film constitutes its authenticity which is firmly done in the first sequences. This will be followed by a listing of the ten stages of genocide, how they are visualized in the documentary and its link to the historical evidence. I will conclude with an analysis of the re-enactment of torture and its link to trauma, cultural and personal memory in the personality of the protagonist Anwar Congo.

5.1 Strategies of Authenticity

For this I will concentrate on the first 10 minutes of the film, because I suggest that in this very beginning of the over two hours and thirty-five minutes duration the authenticity for the viewer is established. I already mentioned the introduction of the movie by Werner Herzog, a worldwide known director and producer, which is also co-produced The Act of Killing. With his appearance on the DVD before the menu - which means you can't skip it - a first step of authenticity by an authorized expert is done.With his statements of what a deep impression the first footage of the movie had left and that it is a film only all ten years is produced, he awakes not only high exceptions, but also a high grade of authenticity before we have seen even one scene of the film.

After a short sequence of a shooting a musical scene which is part of the re-enactments, the director gives us another chance to proof ourselves the authenticity of his movie. A wide shot of an abandoned street in the dusk with two-story buildings introducing the title of the movie followed by a picture of an illuminated glass - highrise between an advertisement board for juice and a broken MC Donald neon sign. With inserts the history of the communist coup, the persecution and killing of “more than one million Communists” with the help of Western governments in three sentences is told. Making a cut into a closer shot leaving the “Western” sign out, in another two sentences the origin of the persecutors and their present is described. In showing a wide shot of the building and a skate park in front of it, the aim of the movie in filming the re-enactment of the killings is made clear to the viewer. A jumping BMX-biker from the right to the left frame takes us from the present to the past.

Also other inserts and the involvement of prominent Indonesian politicians prove the authenticity and actuality of the movie. The introduction of the leading persons happens in a street scene where five men in camouflage clothes and an older civil person walk in front of the camera moving backwards. The older one is introduced as “Anwar Congo. Executioner in 1965 ”, the younger one with a child in his left and a camera in his right hand is titled “Herman Koto. Gangster and paramilitary leader ”. Later we are also introduced to Jusu Kalla, vice-president of Indonesia, who gets the same camouflage jacket we already know as a present, and three more members of the actual Indonesian parliament and government.

The next stage of authenticity is reached when the first dialogs start, which are not translated but in subtitles. Also only natural sound is provided to us. The introducing scene which is also the first attempt for the re-enactment of a persecution of Communists is staged in an open street and it shows us how Herman and his friends try to hire lay actors for playing communist wives and children. All this happens while they are surrounded by dozens of spectators like Western viewers know such scenes from documentaries and reports of Second and Third world countries. When staging the first re-enactment the camera seems to be in the middle of the tumult when filming through the fake persecutors Anwar Congo who is watching this scene from distance.

All together these first minutes refer to the strategies of authenticity which are described in Hattendorfs work as mentioned above. But at the end of the scene it´s the first time the contract between film and viewer [1] is weakened due to the fictional character of the re-enactment disturbs the authentic scenery. And this is only the beginning for the viewer and Anwar on a journey where re-enactment links past and present in a peculiar manner only to repeal the distance to history and let emerge its differences at the same time. [2]

5.2 Representations of Genocide in the Past and Present

In this chapter I will interpret several scenes of the movie in the context of the ten stages of Genocide like suggested and published by Gregory H. Stanton and conclude with an analysis in context to Mark Levene's thesis. I will not differentiate between fictional (re-enactments) and real (documentary) parts, because both show a view on the past and the present actions and conditions in Indonesia.


Classification means categorization to establish an “us and them” provided by ethnicity, race, religion, nationality or in this case political attitude. Since the UN's exclusion of political killings from genocide the change of what we now think about the construction of ethnic identity makes this distinction blurry. For Indonesia Cribb argues "That the communist vision for Indonesia constituted a separate conception of the nation and that the extermination of party members on a massive scale thus constituted genocide."[3] In the first scene of the movie that I described above, Herman says, “People might think they really are communists”, when no one wanted to play the role of a betrayed wife of a communist, and further; "This whole area was communist." In another scene Anwar tells us with a shouting Muezzin in the background, “The guy doing the call to prayer was communist. Luckily he didn't fall into my hands. If he did, he'd be dead ”.

Establishing a monolith victim group and not regarding their socially and politically diversity is one main issue in the process of genocide. Thus there are not only the actors who could be terrorists or bandits but any other people who are related with this group:

“In this way, whether the group consists of those who are genuinely involved in opposition to the state, or entirely oblivious of what is going on, indeed whether they are babes in arms or even not yet born, they are reified into single organized actor . ”[4]

Concluding his thoughts about the victims, Levene argues that "The very reason why they ultimately resort to mass murder" is: "They fear the victim."[5] Not only physically or for military reasons, but also for their connections with political movements or organizations beyond the boundaries of state, like the international communism.

In the words of Herman we can also hear that this classification process is not over at all, but still operating when the people fear they will be accused to be communists. Anwars message to the muezzin is “I still could kill you and no one would blame me”.


Even if there are no obvious symbols to classify communists shown in the movie, there were efforts to stigmatize them until the 1990s, where former detainees of prison camps had to wear a passport with the remark “ET” for former political prisoners. [6] Most crucial for the preservation of the communist threat was the annual broadcasting of the 1984 released four-and-a-half-hour motion picture The treason of G30S / PKI by the state-owned film company.

Another big myth of the communist coup which had heavy impact on the treatment of women in the persecutions of 1965 and afterwards has been symbolized in the movie: After the coup against the seven generals on the airbase, the rumor was spread that members of a women ´s organization associated with the PKI"Have tortured and mutilated the generals sexually before abandoning themselves in a lustful orgy with senior communists and air force officers."[7] The myth of the threating by sexual obsessed women is an old one, but it is used strongly through the history of genocide as Levene suggests. Thus rape and murder of women in genocide could be seen as a form of more "Traditional ritualistic-style efforts at exorcism."[8]

The apparent misogyny in Indonesia is shown in a few scenes where especially the paramilitary leaders handle women as objects. Rape as tactical instrument of genocide is described by Safit Pardede, a local paramilitary leader who describes the imagined rape of a 14 year old girl with "I'd say it's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me."

These issues are symbolized by the role of a goddess of vengeance who is played by Herman in the movie. Filming a scene about Anwars nightmares where ghosts of dead people are haunting him, Herman in his red dress cuts off the head of Anwar and symbolizes the feminine allocation of communism in Indonesia which is also mentioned by director Oppenheimer in an interview. [9] Disguised as prostitute in a red dress s_he stuffs the decapitated Anwar a piece of meat in his mouth calling it his penis. Red dresses, prostitutes and fake red blood all together evoke a strong and negative link to Communism.


Strong arguments that the conditions for genocide had been maintained a long time after the mass killing were several laws and campaigns to discriminate communists or descendants of them. Most famous was the "Environmentally clean" - Campaign where government employees, teachers, attorneys and workers in the economic important oil industry were not allowed to have a family or social environment affiliate with communism. [10] Anwar's friend Adi is referring to that when they go fishing and he talks about what would have been if his father was a communist. Thinking of Anwar would have killed his father he states “You don't let me go to school. You don't let me work. You don´t even let me marry. "

The film strongly emphasizes the actual discrimination of the Chinese minority in Medan. It depicts Safit and his gangster colleagues going to the Chinese market and collecting protection money from the traders. The scene is introduced with a car drive with Anwar where he tells that there were many communists in Medan whose names were registered in a thick book which he received. He asks them how much they would pay. He argues that they used them for their money and only had killed them when they didn't get paid. Again a link is established between the evident persecutions of the Chinese minority in 1965-66 and the current situation of the traders. We can see that the latter still live under fear and oppression by the gangsters and the paramilitary who threaten them with violence.


The direct equitation of the communists or Chinese with animals, vermin, insects or diseases is rare. Though, the repeated term of the "Extermination of the communists" refers to equitation with animals. A big role in establishing this discourse plays the media. Ibrahim Sinik, a publisher of a newspaper since 1965 was aware of that when he tells us "As a newspapers man my job was to make the public hate them."

When Anwar, his paramilitary colleagues and the film team are invited into a talk show of the Indonesian national television to present their project the female presenter repeats the words of one the paramilitaries with "God hates the communists" and also speaks from Extermination.

How persistent such demonization of a group can be shows the statement of the former minister of home affairs in 1997 claiming that he could smell a communist from the other side of a wall. Here we can perceive a link to the prejudice that ethnic groups have a distinct smell. [11]


The preparations for genocidal killing are according to Stanton usually organized by state power, "Often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility."[12]Even when the organization is informal or decentralized, they could be trained and armed by the state. In Indonesia the role of the army was long in question but recent research emphasizes the role of the army in "Provid [ing] weapons, equipment, training and encouragement."[13] As he describes the origin of the killers ranged from anti-communist special forces to para-commandos, military units, local militias and youth affiliates of political parties. Though the army "Never permitted them to develop beyond a limited scale."[14]Speaking of the at first glance secondary role of the army in the mass killing Cribb argues as one of the main evidence against that the vanishing of the militias "As soon as their bloody work was done."[15]

One of the main critiques of Cribb on The Act of Killing lies in the overemphasizing of the role of the youth organizations and militias. I would argue that it is rather a masking of the strong link between army and the militias. But as the movie is more about the present than about the past, it seems to be legitimate to me.

As the movie suggests there is a strong connection between militias and the government in present Indonesia. High officials as the Vice-President, members of parliament or ministers are involved with the paramilitary group of Pancasila Youth. In a scene where Anwar visits a meeting of this youth organization the movie lets us know that it is one of the biggest paramilitary groups nowadays with three million members, and played a leading role in the 1965-66 killings. Thus the movie evokes that most of them seem to be preman or gangsters who suppress the rest of the community. The leader of the Pancasila youth is introduced to us as Yapto Soerjosoemarno who greets our protagonist with "This is the real Anwar Congo" what proves the validity of him one more time. As Anwar offers him "Photos of us from the old days", Yapto suggests to "Distribute them on a CD" on their national congress. He claims the responsibility to defend the nation against threats should not only lie on the duty of the army and the police. Accused of being a gangster organization he calls himself "The biggest gangster of all."

In the scene direct after extorting the Chinese traders even the vice-president of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla argues in a speech to the members of Pansacila that the nation needs gangsters - or free men - working outside the government to bring the country further.

All together a heavy impression of the linkage between the government and the paramilitary is established. It also shows the origin of their power in the participation at the mass killings of 1965-66. The presence of uniforms, weapons and the words of their leaders provide us with a sense of the capability to strike against the communist threat whenever it's needed. How strong their power is could be recognized at the beginning of the 2000, when the process of reappraisal initiated by president Wahid was stopped by raging militias who were attending the killings in the 1960s. [16] On his website genocidewatch.net Stanton categorizes present Indonesia still stage five for threatening Christians by Muslims. [17]


A big part in the polarization of the groups for the preparation of genocide plays the media - television, cinema and newspapers. The movie shows us these links in several ways. I already mentioned the publisher of the Medan Post Ibrahim Sinik and the appearance of Anwar and his friends at the talk show of a TV station. Adi and Anwar also watch the 1984 propaganda movie which has the same attempt.

In his speeches in front of his subordinates Panscalia youth leader Yapto bridges the past with the present talking of heroism of its members from exterminate communism to fighting neo-communists and left-wing extremists "And those who want to destroy our country." When Anwar visits the governor of North Sumatra, Syamsul Arifin, who was a boy Anwar was taking care of back then, Syamsul let us know, that the youth have its own mind, but that they know how to handle and direct them.

How polarization works at the people the introducing scene of the movie shows us when after traumatizing a woman and a young boy by playing communists who are persecuted and threatened to death the spectators around them began to clap and jeering for fighting the communists. Whether this is real or fiction it depicts the power of manipulation by the media which is still working on the minds of the people, building a “Discursive phantom of the Communist threat”.[18] This phantom became a master narrative and a Baudrillard 'hyper-reality [19] for over three decades which "Secured the regime's legitimacy, [...] constructs identities, social hierarchies and power relations."[20]


I assume that the last three points give a sense of how the preparation for genocide is done by action and words. It leaves us with an impression that some groups in Indonesia are still preparing for actions against the communist threat. When visiting the film set for the re-enactment of Kampung Kolam massacre the deputy minister for youth & sport and member of Pansacila Youth, Sakhyan Asmara standing next to Anwar Congo and speaking directly to Joshua Oppenheimer. After the re-enacted yelling for blood and the extermination of the communists, Sakhyan gets aware of what Oppenheimer had filmed and states: “Don´t erase it! Use it to show how ferocious we can be! In fact, we can even be worse! So think of it as a simulation of our rage if anyone disturbs our country. " It is like a menace to all who want to opposite the official memory of what happened nearly 50 years ago.


This stands for the segregation, expropriation and interrogation of the victim group. Concentration camps could be built and small scale killings begin.

In the movie the depiction of such action starts with the first street scene. After they force a woman and a child to play communists the uniformed men of the Pansacila Youth storm the house of the women yelling “Kill them! Destroy their house! Burn it! " While crying and shouting back on Herman and his followers the advice of Herman to "Cry, Weep!" it makes clear to us, that the scene is staged.

In a scene related to the killings of the Chinese people in Medan Suryono, a neighbor of Anwar tells them the story of him and his Chinese stepfather. The persecutors knocked at their door at 3 AM, called him out and deported him. Suryono and his Grandfather found his body under an oil drum and buried him next to a street “Like a goat”. Afterwards his family was exiled and "Dumped in a shantytown at the edge of the jungle." Excluded from education he had to learn writing and reading by himself. This fits properly to Cribb's and Coppel's findings of what happened to the Chinese minority during the killings and afterwards. [21]

Right after that Anwar's neighbor plays his stepfather as victim in an examination. This is one of six inquisitions which are re-enacted by Anwar and his colleagues in a step by step more accurate acting and setting. They show us methods of accusation - "In order to spread communism, right?" or "why do you recruit people to join an illegal party" - like in the scene where Adi plays a communist. In the second interrogation scene they are filming the bashing of people with Anwar playing a victim. The third scene is the one with Anwar's neighbor.When they assess a machete on his throat we can see how Suryono, who is laughing when telling the story in the preceded scene, by playing his stepfather, gets aware of the trauma in his childhood.

In the fifth examination scene they stage the killing of a child by re-enacting it with a teddy bear. Though the scene is quite surreal, the statements of Anwar and his behavior in a setting like in a Film Noir / Gangster movie in the 1950s evokes an uncanny feeling about the brutality of Anwar and his colleagues.

The last interrogation is the turning point of the movie and I well get to it later. But there is a statement of Herman playing the interrogator, which depicts us the claiming of newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik at the beginning of the film. First Anwar introducing Ibrahim to us with “He was always gathering information for us”, simulating a typewriter with his hand, and then “When he had the information - he'd say: Guilty! and we'd take them away and kill them. " Asked for the interrogations which took place in his office Ibrahim tells us "Whatever we asked, we'd change their answers to make them look bad." At the later scene Anwar plays the leader of a communist cell, Jalaludin Yussuf. Asked if he is the leader and answering nothing, his persecutors tells the man on the type-writer: “Write it down. He said Yes. "

This shows us how manipulative and daunting these interrogations were and how they could evoke a deep traumatic impact on the victims. I would argue not only to them but also to the perpetrators. Thus it shows us how such interrogations could provoke the remembrance of traumatic events by re-enacting them.


One of the fundamental tasks of the movie is to show us how the killers handle their victims, how they killed them. The historical evidence speaks of a great diversity of methods by which the victims were killed. The extermination of whole villages like the massacre of Kampung Kolam on October, 25 1965 was quite rare, like Cribb argues, and for the most part, the killers selected their victims by lists. Most of the killings were done with knives and swords, but also they were beaten to death and being shot. Also mass graves were excavated by the later victims, and many of them were dumped into rivers. [22]

As Levene shows on the case of Rwanda, modern genocide does not obligatory need a "Sophisticated apparatus for killing large numbers of people."[23] This we can also see in the case of Anwar when he vaunts himself of inventing a more efficient and less bloody way to kill the people. In different scenes he shows us how he killed his victims wrapping a wire around their throat to strangle them. The TV presenter later calls it a “More efficient system for exterminating communists. It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence ... "

The movie shows also a very cruel way to kill people which is re-enacted in a scene using a sandbag instead of people. John Roosa lists some of the torturing with mentioning "One of their favorite techniques [...] to place a table leg on the toes of the prisoners and then sit on the table, bouncing up and down for a better effect."[24] An “enhanced” version of this is shown to us by Anwar and his friends clothed as mafia gangsters of the 1920s. He describes how he put the table leg on the victims´ throat while sitting on the table, looking across the streets and having fun. For underlining this, they put a sandbag under the leg, sit on the table and start singing a song about a town called Bandung. Finishing it, Herman remarks He's dead! Let's move the body. "

That the killers were proceeding systematically with death lists is told by Anwar's friend Adi. He received a list of Chinese communists only to stabbing every Chinese person he met, even his girlfriends' father who he saw in the streets. Visiting a shopping center with his family he concludes his story with other techniques: “We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their neck with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. " This gives an uncanny imagination of what happened at this time.

One of the most impressive scenes of the movie is the conquering of Kampung Kolam. It is, in fact, not only for us as viewer, but also for all who attended in the re-enactment. The actors were all of Anwar's friends, the Pansacila Youth, their wives and children, which played the peasants of a little village in the jungle. Director Oppenheimer admits in the production note, that he didn´t expect such a scene of violence and realism. [25] Not only he did, after the raid we can see the crying child of Herman, traumatized men and a woman falling into unconsciousness.

The whole scene begins with the motivation by the deputy minister for youth and sports motivating the actors to yell for slaughtering the communists and burning the village. It is followed by the talk about raping girls mentioned above, then women are introduced how to behave during filming. Anwar shows other actors how to kill with the wire. After a short cut to Anwar who is lying in his bed sleeplessly, the action in the village starts. The camera films the whole scene through the flames of the burning village. The heat and the smoke are blurring the lines between the past and the present. Besides the natural sound we can hear a kind of high metallic squeak which lasts throughout the scene. As we see Anwar stepping through the stage we can hear his heavy breathing and the violence appears to us more and more real. I would argue that this is the moment Anwar the first time realizes what happened back then. Not only him but also the men, women and children acting as victims become aware of the terrifying history of their country. The scene ends by the statement of Anwar to the camera, that he never expected it would look this awful. In getting worried about the children's future after torturing them and burning down the house he also seems to lose the sense for past and present, fiction and reality.


In the attempt of the movie "About the function in the present of a terrifying and spectral force of an unrepresentable traumatic past"[26], it is also and foremost one about denial. It is about blaming the guilt on the victims, burning their bodies or dumping them into rivers and mass graves, covering up evidence and blocking the investigations.

The most obvious reason killing the communists for Anwar and his friends, who all were in the business of selling cinema tickets on the black market, was the opposition of the communists to showing American movies. That meant fewer visitors and less money for them and they found a reason to blame them afterwards. I would argue that the ideological background to justify their killings came later with the official state memory.

A strong argument how to turn a blind eye on what happened in 1965 gives as an employee of the newspaper print shop, which was also the headquarter of the killings in Medan. Watching the re-enactment of the killings he tells Adi that he was wondering all the time why he didn´t recognize the killings and couldn´t see anything. Though Adi tells him that it was the same office room and all the neighbors knew it, the man persists on his look on the past, building his own memory and reality.

Adi is following a very interesting development during shooting of the movie, though it ended in a struggle with director Oppenheimer. He is the first who is aware of the meaning shooting such a movie and showing the world what they’ve done. He comprehends that it will show how cruel they were, and that it was not the communists. Still don't fearing criminal prosecution he tells Anwar; “It's not a problem for us. It's a problem for history. " But after this shooting, Adi starts to see things different. Confronted by Oppenheimer that what he have done the Geneva Conventions defines as war crimes, Adi states that he does not have to agree with international laws because they´re representing todays moral, not that one of the past, and as a winner he can make a definition by his own what it was that he had done. Referring to Cane and Abel and the genocide on the American natives, his critical thinking is reversed to a commitment to fight those who dig in the dirt. Seeing him in a shopping mall with his family and being convinced that it was legal, just because they never were persecuted, the conclusion of Adi's thought and self-justification must be: that was it worth for!

I would argue that by watching Adi's change in his positions we can see how denial works. It is a struggle between the personal memory and the official state history in which the latter wins. Confronted with his personal guilt by re-enacting the killings they act like a trigger which recalls the suppressed memory. [27] Adi's answer to this threat of his personal freedom, peace and well-doing, which is symbolized by the scenes with his family and the shopping center, is denial.

Genocide as part of Westernization and building of a nation state

As Mark Levene argues genocide can be part of a countries´ strive to empowerment within an increasingly globalized world system. He underlines the meaning of this development with referring to Wallerstein´s theory of an emerging world system, setting the beginning of modern genocide with the emergence of the United States, Great Britain and France as nation states. [28] He also argues that genocide doesn´t have to be synchronized with the beginning of a nation state, but also could happen years later when a correction to things missed in the past has to be done. [29] We could argue that the unsolved struggle between Islamists, communists and developmentalists after independence was stopped by the genocide of 1965-66.

The director gives as a punch of arguments for recognizing present Indonesia as modern, Western state. The movie starts with the depiction of a high rise between an advertising panel and a MC Donalds sign. Going to a wider shot of the city we see a skate park in front of this building. The depiction of Anwar and Herman at the Bowling center, the leader of Pansacila Youth playing golf with his Rolex on his arm, girls taking “Selfies” with her cell and the repeated filming of a shopping mall - even a quite empty one - generates, and I would assume with full intention of the director, the picture of a Western industrialized community. As I argued for Adi, Oppenheimer in contrasting the pictures of torture and western lifestyle wants to ask the viewers: “Was it worth that?”

The movie also shows us from where this pursuit for western culture and wealth derived from. In an interrogation scene Anwar tells a communist “We don't want to be poor. Although we're only cinema thugs we want to feel like people in the movies. " The media - especially American gangster movies - built the reality for Anwar and his friends of cinema enthusiasts. He wanted to wear the same clothes like them, behave like them and he took their acts of killing to can live like them.

This fits to Levene's explanations of the three different groups of perpetrators which not only could be the modern state or an ideology - driven elite, but also have to be the ordinary people or gangsters. Citing Gérard Prunier on his evaluation of the Rwanda genocide we can find the protagonists of the movie and their behavior:

“For these people the genocide was the best thing that could ever happen to them. They had the blessings of a form of authority to take revenge on socially powerful people as long as they were on the wrong side of the political fence. They could steal, they could kill with minimum justification, they could rape and they could get drunk for free. "[30]

For sure this was not the aim of all persecutors in Indonesia, but it shows us, that the individual incitement attending mass killings are quite indifferent, but different from the purposes of the state and the elite at all.

5.3 Re-enacting a trauma

For an understanding what this movie means to us, to the victims and not at least for the perpetrators it is important to mention, that besides some oral history interviews by John Roosa the killings in Indonesia are almost wholly unrecorded, and we can assume completely unillustrated . [31] For this reason the propaganda movie by the Indonesian regime from the early 1980s provided a picture for an official state history and cultural memory of the events. This constituted what Aleida and Jan Assman call a functional memory where today is based on a certain past, memory is used for strategic and perspective issues, and which is transported by collective acting subjects in public festivals and rites. In opposition to the functional stands the storage memory, which is transported by individuals in art, literature and science, unstructured and with unoccupied elements. [32]

Assmann and Assmann argue that the storage memory is an aim of destruction for totalitarian regimes due to its corrective character towards the functional memory which only remembers what it needs to constitute a collective memory. The unoccupied elements of the storage memory can imply unsurmounted memories of acts in the past. [33]

Oppenheimer points out the importance of the re-enactment in his movie when saying that they are "making visible the narratives […] that people tell themselves that are embedded in a situation, embedded in how people make sense of who they are, […] make sense of the world of which they are apart. "[34]

I would argue that the narratives become obvious with the more and more accurate re-enactment of the killings and, even more crucial, with the self-reflection on the meta-diegetic level of the documentary. For Anwar watching these scenes two consequences appear. By acting and watching himself in the TV, his fascination of Hollywood movies and their constitutional character for reality in Anwar's life during the 1960s and later on, is destroyed. The re-enactments "allow the protagonist to experience the repeated situation in full consciousness (of his own role), and at the same time observe events from the center yet from a distance. "[35] It allows Anwar to access the - his - history "through immersion, embodiment, and empathy. "[36] It can be interpreted as, whether intentional or not, evaluation of his traumatic past. For such an evaluation accurate clothing and places play an important role as Julia Köhne argues in reference to trauma theories. [37] For this reason re-enactment is also used as form of psycho-therapy and it is a therapy that happens to Anwar during the filming.

The fundamental scene of this change is staged as a Film Noir movie from the 50s in two parts: First Anwar plays the executioner killing a victim after an interrogation with a wire. In the killing sequence Oppenheimer takes a close-up shot of Anwar lying under the table. Filming his hands and his head we can see him starting to tremble all over his body, groaning and breathing heavily. The camera watches him for almost one minute before he puts his head completely exhausted on the ground. Directly after this scene Oppenheimer shows us a starting plane and then parts of a crashed plane in the city. I would interpret this as the crash of personal and collective memory in Anwar's head and body.

This is followed by a scene where finally Anwar plays the victim. The filming doesn't allow us to distinct between a real or acted behavior of Anwar anymore. It's just interrupted by Oppenheimer himself for advising Herman to wipe out the (false) blood from Anwar's eyes. The filming doesn´t use long and wide shots of the scenes, but more cuts and jumping between close and wide shots. Reality and fiction are blurring for the moment. Before making another shot of the scene Anwar tells to Herman "I feel like I was dead for a moment. " Sitting completely lethargic on the interrogation chair Herman advises him not to get so into it. Repeating the wire scene Anwar's right arm starting to shake and he admits that he can't do it again.

What happened to Anwar? Roosa in his analysis of the differences between victims' memories and state history in Indonesia first talks about interrogation and torture. He argues that the power the torturers feel

“Is the power to impose their words as accurate representations of reality. The torture room becomes the locus for the reaffirmation of a regime's symbolic construction of the world, its particular conceptual framework for perceiving reality. "[38]

By acting as the object of torture instead of the subject, the “reality” of the past which is not constituted by the functional memory but rather by its storage memory is breaking through. The storage memory for Assmann can relativize, criticize and most notably change the cramped perspective on the past by the functional memory. [39]

Anwar is supported in his change of perception by watching the scenes of re-enactment and therefore becoming the object of his past. Cinema and also TV supports the oblivion of the own body but keeps an imaginary body experience in mind at the same time, as Elsner et al. conclude in their cultural history of media:

“The staging of physicality in the close-up shots of the Kinolweinwand and the resulting, thoroughly“ real ”experience of medially conveyed closeness seem to have a particularly stimulating effect on the imagination of someone else's physical experience.[40]

The more realistic the re-enactment develops the more he realizes that he had done these things. This finally leads to a sense of regret. Watching the sequence playing the victim, he rhetorically asks if the people he tortured felt the same way he did in this scene, claiming that he could feel what they felt when his dignity was destroyed and fear and terror possessed his body.

Additionally the experience of violence and fear breaks with the former construction by a perceived communist threat, constituted by "Latching onto the dialogue and pretending as if it had not been produced by violence."[41] Anwar registers that this reality only was based on violence and instead of a Hollywood hero he just was Living a fiction[42] as an executioner for the state.

[1] Hattendorf, documentary, p. 75ff.

[2] Jens Roselt, Ulf Otto, Not here. Not now. Introduction. In: Jens Roselt, Ulf Otto (Ed.), Theater as a time machine. On the performative practice of re-enactment. Theater and cultural studies perspectives. (Theater, Volume 45, Bielefeld: transcript, 2012) pp.7-12. Here: 10

[3] Robert Cribb, Genocide in the non-Western world: implications for Holocaust studies. In: Steven L.B. Jensen (Ed.), Genocide: Cases, Comparisons and Contemporary Debates. (Copenhagen: Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 2003) pp.123-140, as cited in: Cribb, Coppel, Genocide that never was, 464

[4] Levene, Genocide, 127

[5] Ibid, 142

[6] Andreas Ufen, Politics of the Past in Indonesia: The Massacres of 1965-1966. In: GIGA Focus (No.3, 2014) p.5

[7] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 232

[8] Levene, Genocide, 140

[9] Behlil, The Act of Killing, 30

[10] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 236

[11] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, remark 34, 239

[12] Stanton, Ten stages, point 5

[13] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 233

[14] Ibid.

[15] A more elaborate analysis of the army's role in: Ibid, 235-237. Here: 235

[16] Posting 1965 incident, 571-573

[17] Stanton, Countries at Risk. In: Genocidewatch.net, online: http://genocidewatch.net/alerts-2/new-alerts/ (accessed 04.07.2014)

[18] Heryanto, Communism, 151

[19] Ibid, 157

[20] Ibid, 153

[21] Cribb, Coppel, Genocide never was, 450ff.

[22] Cribb, Genocide in Indonesia, 233

[23] Leven, Genocide, 78

[24] John Roosa, The Truths of Torture: Victims' Memories and State Histories in Indonesia. In: Indonesia No. 85 (April 2008) pp 31-49. Here: 40

[25] Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing. Production Notes. Online:

[26] Joshua Oppenheimer in the Interview: Roosa, Interview, 7

[27] Triggers can be people, words, spaces, situations or even songs. Michaela Huber, Trauma and its aftermath. Trauma and trauma treatment. Part 1. (Paderborn: Junfermann, 2003) p.193ff

[28] Levene, Genocide, 177f.

[29] Ibid, 196

[30] Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis, History of Genocide 1959-1994 (London: Hurst & Co., 1995) 231, cited in: Ibid, 122

[31] At least it was at the time where Cribb and Coppel wrote the article which was published online 2009, see: Cribb, Coppel, Genocide never was, 449 and remark 5, 462

[32] Assmann, Assmann, Yesterday in today, 121-123

[33] Ibid, 124-129

[34] Roosa, Interview, 5

[35] Arns, horn, History, 39

[36] Ibid, 41

[37] Julia Barbara Koehne, Traumatic love game. Concentration camp representation, identification with the perpetrator and masochistic sexuality in THE NIGHT PORTER (1974). In: Julia Barbara Köhne (Ed.), Trauma and film. Staging something that cannot be represented. (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2012) pp.221-272

[38] Roosa, Thruths of Torture, 34

[39] Assmann, Assmann, Yesterday in today 129

[40] Monika Elsner, hand Ulrich Gumbrecht, Thomas Müller, Peter M. Spangenberg, On the cultural history of the media. In: Merten, Schmidt, Weischenberg (Ed.), Reality of the Media. pp. 163-187, here: 178, 179

[41] Roosa, Thruths of Torture, 34

[42] Žižek, Living a fiction

The analysis has made it clear how the director of The Act of Killing established a sense of authenticity of the documentary within the first ten minutes of it. In developing authenticity signals a certain mode of interpretation is established which results in a conscious reflection and active involvement of the viewer. [1] In this film these points are the introduction by a famous director and producer, the inserts on the history of Indonesia and the goal of the movie and the first street scene.

The main concern of this work was to show how the movie depicts the different stages of genocide in the scenes which re-enact or reflect on the mass killings of 1965-66. I have shown how the maintaining of a fictional threat results to a hyper reality in which the mechanisms of genocide are still working to protect the killers of the past, which are now - and still - in the lead of the Indonesia government. One fundamental point for their ongoing leadership is the denial of injustice of their doings and their acceptance of a truth which is delivered by the government for ideological reasons. The impression of a still existing awareness towards a trigger as justification to kill again is established. For this reason it is rather a movie about the role of terror in the present than in the past. Like the similar documentary S-21, La machine de mort Khmére Rouge (2003, D: Rithy Panh) for the genocide in Cambodia, Anwar and his colleagues embody and envision the institutions which formed them and they formed. Thus the institutional practice survives the institutions themselves in the bodies which were part of the practice. The movie shows us acts and bodies of terror which are rather updatable than bygone. [2]

In the last point of this work I argued that the main character of the movie, Anwar Congo substituted the functional memory of the official Indonesian state history by his own storage memory. This happened by re-enacting the past and getting the object of his torture by reflecting on the pictures produced by The Act of Killing. Not only for Anwar Congo the documentary work of Oppenheimer helps to find his own, though brutal past and realizing the fatal consequences of his actions, but also the movie supports the establishment of a cultural storage memory for whole Indonesia where it was suppressed by an official state history in the past 48 years.

For us, the viewer, the representation of genocide and the re-enactment of killings leads to the question after the meaning of these pictures for ourselves and how we would deal with the situation, which stands on the end of every re-enactment: [ 3] How far we would have gone and will the result be it worth?

It also raises the question, if the “therapeutic” treatment of persecutors in the form of re-enactments can be the matter of a broader discussion and usage in the genocide aftermath treatment. I don´t think so, because Anwar´s fandom of American gangster movies let him constitute a reality before his killings, which was to be broken by a movie 50 years later. The artificial reality of Anwar's re-enactment of the movie gangsters in the 1965 killings ended by the re-enactment of his real acts of killings. His friends, who weren´t under the influence of the gangster movies or not born at all back in 1965 don´t show that regret by re-enacting the killings.

[1] Daniel D. Sponsel, Jan Sebenig, Authenticity in fictional and non-fictional films - criteria for the arrangement of reality in cinematic space. Lucie Bader Egloff, Anton Rey, Stefan Schöbi, Really? - Strategies of authenticity in current documentary films (Zurich:, 2009) p. 106, cited in: Wende, Story, 241

[2] Simon Rothöhler, Suspended Historicity. For the cinematic repetition of history in S-21, la machine de mort Khmére rouge and Hamburg lessons. In: Roselt, Otto (Ed.), Theater as a time machine. pp.175-188. Here: 182.

[3] Arns, History, 43ostirHi

Watching the movie the first time back in November 2013 and nothing read before about the mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66 it seems quite unclear to me what role the re-enactment plays within the movie and for the change in perception to Anwar Congo. Analyzing the movie in terms of genocide and link it with the conception of social memory and theory of re-enactment helps to clarify the intentions of the film in showing the effects of a violent past of a society and its cultural memory of it in the present . It also provides us with important answers how governments or the leading group of a nation can establish and maintained an imagined group of enemies who are threatening the freedom of the country and extend this threat to the last resort of genocide.

In reference to the still ongoing debates about the Holocaust in Europe it seems to be clear how complex the issues of denial and reappraisal by the follower states was and still is when we think of the scientific and popular debates like the Goldhagen-Debatte, “Wehrmachtsausstellung ”Or the“ Historikerstreit ”. Thinking of the depicted power and cross-linking between gangsters, paramilitary and Indonesian government by the Pansacola Youth it is only hard to imagine that reappraisal would be an easy one on the Archipelago, even when a first step is done, as we can see on the example of Anwar Congo.

Act of Killing, Anwar Congo, Documentary, Memory Culture, genocide, genocide comparison, genocide studies, Global History, Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer, Reenactment, social memory, stages of genocide

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