Tag Archives: Act of Killing

Indonesian executions should have taken no one by surprise

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Andrew Chan (left) and Myuran Sukamaran, two of the eight convicted drug smugglers executed by firing squad in Indonesia. Photograph by Jason Childs/Getty Images courtesy of theguardian.com

No one familiar with Indonesia’s history should be in the least surprised at the indifference its government displayed to world leaders and human rights activists pleading for the lives of the eight drug traffickers executed by firing squad earlier this week.

For all its exotic charm and hospitable people, there is a ruthless, vicious disregard for the sanctity of human life that runs through many of Indonesia’s institutions, in particular the army, who have kept its rulers in power for much of the modern state’s existence and remain a force to be reckoned with.

Two episodes in the country’s recent history stand out. The first are the purges of the mid 1960s, when gangs, supported by elements of the army, went on the rampage to eliminate undesirables ranging from communists, trades unionists, government officials and teachers to anyone suspected of leftist leanings, or simply someone the local gang warlord didn’t like the look of. By the time it ended, around half a million people had been slaughtered by these militias. The bloodbath, depicted in the recent Oscar nominated documentary “The Act of Killing”, attracted almost no attention from the outside world at the time.

The second episode, also largely ignored by the international community, was is the 1975 invasion by Indonesian forces of East Timor, which forms the jumping off point for my novel Francesca. This completely unprovoked annexation resulted in a quarter of a century of oppression before East Timor finally gained its independence in 2002, at an estimated cost of a third of the population.

Suharto may be gone, but with stuff like this in your country’s DNA, you’re not about to lose any sleep over machine-gunning a few coke dealers, however spurious the evidence against them or mitigating the circumstances.

To me, what stands out is the shocked response from a world that by and large remained utterly indifferent to these twin tragedies in Indonesia’s recent past. Granted, communications then weren’t what they are now, but it wasn’t that long ago that Indonesia was able to wage genocide on the entire East Timorese population and get away with it. Australian Prime Ministers weren’t recalling ambassadors or engaging in personal pleas to the President to stop the killing. Eventually Indonesia did succumb to outside pressure, once they realised the war wasn’t worth the resources they were expending waging it, but it took a while. Too long for many.

Francesca opens with a scene in which President Suharto is outlining his plans for Timor to the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger and President Ford. In a dialogue drawn from records in the President Ford Library, both Ford and Kissinger, who know exactly what Suharto’s plans entail, happily give him the green light to proceed, requesting only the Indonesians wait until the Americans are back on US soil.

Returning to last week’s events, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the uncomfortable thought that what really galvanises the international human rights community is that some of the condemned drug smugglers were Australian citizens. In other words, people whom rich, articulate westerners could understand and identify with – a son, a brother, a sister perhaps gone astray, fallen into bad company, made some poor choices, but still a human being nevertheless deserving of mercy and understanding. Unlike the faceless victims of East Timor.

Francesca, a seventeen year old Timorese girl, encounters the same thing. As the capital city of Dili burns around her, she witnesses Chinese traders being lined up and shot for… well, being Chinese traders; women being raped then murdered for… well, being women; Timorese citizens being burned to death in their homes for being… yes, you’ve guessed it, Timorese citizens. When she finally escapes, she enquires as to the fate of a group of Portuguese nuns she knew. Assuming the worst, she is surprised to be told they were airlifted to safety by an Australian helicopter.

Not because they were nuns, but because they were western nuns.

Francesca is available at http://viewbook.at/francesca

The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

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A fantasy of heaven recreated by mass killer Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing

However the Oscars go when the envelopes are opened up on the 2nd March, there’s one film that seems destined to resonate around the world long after the final credits have rolled and the movie industry has turned its attention to the upcoming summer blockbusters. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, has been on a roll since its release, cleaning up at the major film festivals and garnering critical acclaim wherever it has been shown.

The film concerns itself with the purges that took place across Indonesia in 1965, inspired by the Suharto led Indonesian army to rid the military, the government and professions of communists or those suspected of communist sympathies. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

What makes The Act of Killing so unusual is the way it attempts to tell this story. Eschewing the usual witness statements, confrontations or dramatic reconstructions, the filmmakers track down perpetrators and invite them to re-enact their murders on film.

There is a reason for this, and it’s not just artistic choice. Oppenheimer’s initial attempts to gain testimony from victims of the massacres were thwarted by their terror of retribution, and then by obstacles placed in the director’s path by the Indonesian authorities. What went on throughout Indonesia in 1965 is fairly well known within the country, especially amongst the older generation who experienced it first hand. It’s hardly a state secret. Anyone with an internet connection and the time and inclination can get a pretty reliable account of what happened without too much difficulty. The problem is, until now no one in the West really cared, and in Indonesia it’s not a subject for open debate, or at least it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of Oppenheimer’s film. Many of the killers are well known within their communities and continue to enjoy not only impunity for their crimes, but connections at the higher levels of regional and national government.

It was only when Oppenheimer turned the story on its head by offering to narrate it from the perspective of the killers that he was able to break the deadlock. Such was their confidence in their invulnerability, these former mass murderers, many of them benign looking grandfathers, were happy to talk to the cameras. Not only were they willing to describe what they had done without apparent remorse, they were up for re-enacting their crimes in front of Oppenheimer’s cameras. Many were brought up on a diet of American gangster movies, and the idea of being the stars of their very own piece of cinéma vérité was apparently irresistible.

The device of standing back, letting the cameras roll and paying out enough rope until the subjects hang themselves (or in this case enough wire until they garrotte themselves), is not a new one. The director Nick Broomfield is probably one of its most successful practitioners, deftly deploying it to undermine the menace of Afrikaner white supremacist Eugène Terre-Blanche and turn him into an object of utter ridicule in his classic 1991 documentary “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”.

However, the praise for Oppenheimer has not been universal. Along with the accolades, there’s a small but influential group of reviewers who have taken extreme exception to The Act of Killing. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser found it particularly objectionable. “I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing JewsInstead of an investigation,  or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.”

The problem is, Oppenheimer’s solution to his difficulties in telling the world the story of the 1965 massacres doesn’t quite penetrate the darkness. The victims’ families were unable to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. The killers, who could tell their stories, were hampered by their complete inability to empathise with their victims or see events from any perspective other than their own. Fraser continues, “I find the scenes in the film where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance.”

There’s no doubt The Act of Killing is a tough film to watch. The version I saw ran to 2 hours 39 minutes, which was well over an hour more than I needed. By the end I felt utterly polluted, which I am sure is part of the point. Apparently even this was whittled down from over a thousand hours of footage. How I felt for the production team, having to live with it day in day out in their editing suites for years on end. Having these grisly scenes endlessly played out, with the ageing murderers given full rein to make-up and prosthetics like kids in a candy store, simply echoes Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion to the 1962 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann about the banality of evil.

We get the point. We got the point 20 minutes ago. More is simply over-indulging these monsters who lack any sense of self reflection, or interest really. By befriending them, pandering to their sense of self-importance and giving them free rein to express the contents of their twisted minds, there is a danger Oppenheimer has become morally contaminated himself. He keeps pushing his subjects ever so gently, ever so subtly, for some kind of broader awareness of what they did, but at the end of the day it’s just not there. If they are eventually forced to confront the reality of what they did, it won’t come from their revolting little playlets, but from the justice their fellow citizens may well demand once they see this film. In interviews Oppenheimer comes across as strangely protective of the principal character Anwar Congo, but with or without an Oscar I doubt he will be able to shield him from the rage his fellow Indonesians will unleash upon him and his cronies. Ironically, it is the film’s critical and commercial success rather than its radical approach that poses the greatest threat to the killers and the greatest hope for their country.

Could it be that given his difficulties extracting testimony from victims and the extreme nature of his subject matter, Oppenheimer bumped up against the limits of the documentary? As a novelist, I cannot help thinking that fiction might be better equipped to deal with these stories. Naturally, I have to declare an interest. My own novel, Francesca, deals with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which occurred ten years on from the 1965 purges. There were differences, of course, but there were many similarities. It was the same army acting with the same brutality and callous disregard for human life. The captains in the purges were colonels by the time East Timor came along, the colonels generals. In both cases the United States gave the Indonesian government carte blanche to carry on doing what they were doing, the imperative of containing the threat of communism, however spurious it actually was, trumping any notion of human rights or justice.

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel that bears her name commences, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. She and her family suffer as hundreds of thousands of her fellow Timorese did at the hands of the Indonesian army. As the writer, I can choose how I narrate those events. I can speak for those whose voice has been suppressed. In the artificial world I create, I can paradoxically come closer to the truth than some supposedly factual reconstruction. For really, who actually cares about Anwar Congo? He was just one of thousands of like-minded thugs, his importance lying only in the fact he was representative of so many. In a novel I can place the reader wherever I want: inside Francesca’s head, with the soldiers, as casual onlooker, whatever best serves my overall aim of distilling the truth from the events as they unfold.

That has always been the higher purpose of fiction, its greatest strength aside from the sheer love and pleasure of losing oneself in a good story. It is also why the novel refuses to die, and why I have chosen it as a medium of expression. Of course I will be biased, and no doubt various authors’ tricks will creep in as emotions and sympathies are manipulated towards the direction I desire to lead the reader. But at least I am not at the mercy of some marijuana addled gangster in unexamined denial, and neither are my readers.

Whatever else it has done, The Act of Killing has well and truly lanced the noxious boil of murder and lies festering beneath the surface of Indonesian society, and for that the country owes Oppenheimer a massive debt. He and his team of filmmakers have created a forum, at considerable personal cost, in which an open debate can now take place. For anyone who knows Indonesia, that is no small achievement. On that level, if that level alone, he got the truth he wanted for his film, the truth that is a prerequisite for the reconciliation the Indonesian people so desperately need. Whether that is enough to justify the stomach churning violence that constitutes the larger part of The Act of Killing, whether that elevates it from a series of mini snuff movies to a surreal masterpiece, is another matter entirely.

Francesca, published by Betimes Books, can be ordered here

The Act of Killing – Suharto’s communist purge

Suharto was Indonesia’s second president, effectively overthrowing his predecessor Sukarno in a 1965 coup. As one of the leaders in the struggle to wrestle independence from the Dutch, Sukarno was anti-imperialistic in temperament, and began to ally Indonesia with both Russia and China. By 1965 the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had some 3 million members.

All this changed when Suharto took over the reins. Although Sukarno was still nominally president, Suharto was now calling the shots, having taken control of the army. Along with religious leaders, he inspired and led a purge of communists, initially in Java, but spreading out across Indonesia. Communists, and those suspected of communist sympathies, were ousted from the military, government and any positions of authority. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

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General, later President Suharto held office from 1967 to 1998. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A timely reminder of this appalling episode in Indonesia’s history comes in a newly released documentary, The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer. In this film, which is attracting attention from all over the world and garnering excellent reviews, Oppenheimer makes the acquaintance of former death squad members and has them re-enact their murders for the cameras.

Aside from the surreal and bizarre sight of a septuagenarian in a batik shirt simulating a garotting between dance moves, what strikes me most in the short clips I’ve seen are the similarities between Suharto’s death squads and documented accounts from former torturers in Latin America, particularly El Salvador. In both cases their recollections reinforce the long-held claim made by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that torture not only degrades the victim, but has the same effect on the perpetrator. Like the Salvadorians, Suharto’s killers seem condemned to remain forever haunted by the monstrosity of what they once did, their sole refuge from their crimes coming in transitory oblivion through alcohol and drugs.

Suharto’s communist purge took place a decade prior to the invasion of East Timor and the main action of Francesca. However, some of the characters in the novel were involved, the events are referred to in the story, and they certainly set the tone for the way the Indonesian forces conducted themselves in East Timor.

View a clip of The Act of Killing at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2013/jun/26/act-of-killing-indonesia-genocide-video