A reassessment of The Act of Killing – or to write about what we don’t know

Jagal - The Act of Killing

Jagal, The Act of Killing in Bahasa Indonesia

On 30 September, Joshua Oppenheimer released his documentary The Act of Killing for free unlimited download in Indonesia, the country where 48 years ago the mass killing of communists and their sympathisers that his film deals with took place. It is  a bold stroke – the film, titled Jagal in Indonesian, had not been released in theatres in the country but it had been widely available at smaller venues and for group screenings. By all accounts the vivid and lurid description of how probably some 500,000 people or more were killed by the army, nationalist and Islamic militias and thugs has already had a momentous impact in Indonesia, where for decades state ideology erased these events from official history and demonised anything even remotely left-wing. The country still bans all things communist. Under the military-dominated regime headed by general Suharto that lasted until 1998, each year television showed the same propaganda movie on the alleged communist coup attempt and the kidnapping, torture and murder of six generals on 1 October 1965 that sparked the mass killings. Students across the country also had to attend screenings of the movie. “I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary,” one former student told me recently. Even after Suharto and his coterie lost power in 1998, there was no active, or effective, re-examination of the past.

 “I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary”

That is where The Act of Killing comes in. The film’s Holywoodised style, twisted narrative and obsession with sickening detail are what makes it compelling to a larger Indonesian audience, I was told on a recent trip to the country. Exactly the qualities that made me wary about what is after all a serious documentary about a horrendous, nearly forgotten crime are what make it succeed where more sober treatments have failed. When I earlier posted about The Act of Killing , I saw only one side of the story, what was in front of me, and other than many people who also saw the movie I was disturbed by the balance of its choices. I made the mistake of assuming that the main target for the movie was a Western audience while the real impact will be felt in Indonesia itself, of course. Also, I had no idea to what degree the old New Order, initiated by Suharto during his purge of the communists, still exerts a hold over the country, despite democratisation since the 1998 Reformasi.

A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country by population in the world, is a fascinating place with huge potential but seems to be held back by corruption and political paralysis that have their roots in the past. I cannot claim to know it after spending several weeks there and talking to many well-informed people but I understand a tiny bit more than before I went. Which brings me to the point I raise in the sub-heading: What can we write about that which we don’t know very much about? I’m not phrasing this as an absolute: Should we write at all about what we don’t know intimately? Because a negative answer would mean the total dismissal of the majority of what appears on social media and would even invalidate much of ‘traditional’ journalism. Clearly writers are not all-knowing, even if they are experts in their fields. We all have to fill in the blanks to a certain degree and how intelligently we do that may often be more important than the extent of our knowledge, assuming that we possess some basic information on our subjects. A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge. I find it patronising and impractical to pack stories with lists of caveats and mostly just assume that I’m writing for a relatively sophisticated audience that realises that I give a picture to the best of my abilities. But there are occasions where you fuck up or where you change your mind after finding out more. I guess my formula to deal with that is: Try very hard to avoid it but don’t be paralysed by it.

Walking the shark

The shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, uses its fins to wiggle along the seabed and forage for small fish and crustaceans – ‘walking shark’ discovered in Indonesia – The Guardian

I caught up with the shark as he was promenading off Bali the other day and he was in a bit of a rueful mood. ‘Wiggle? I ask you, do I wiggle?’ he mewled, sounding aggrieved and displaying several rows of sharp teeth in what I initially mistook for a threat but later realised was just his way of sneering. He distractedly masticated a bucketful of small fish and crustaceans that the bountiful seas of Indonesia deposited straight into his mouth as if from a conveyor belt. We pulled up some rocks around a tabletop of coral and sat down to chew the fat for a couple of minutes. ‘Oooh, big deal, a walking shark,’ he snorted. ‘As if we hold the presses every time we see an underwater human or one that has a decent taste in sushi.’ With one swell bite he took the side off a passing grouper, loudly saying ‘yummy’ and looking very pleased with himself. ‘Listen, this whole walking thing is a bit of a scam. Of course we prefer to swim, have you tried walking at this depth?’ He did a comical impression of maneuvering a giant umbrella into a hurricane. ‘We just do it to blend in.’ I nodded understandingly, ‘right, to avoid the shark fin hunters.’ The sitting shark growled at me contemptuously, ‘Most of those supposed fins are flippers that we tear off gormless divers like you and then stick to our backs. Ever wondered why they taste so rubbery? No, we walk to avoid having to bribe the coast guard. They suspect that we sharks make money posing for tourists and they want their cut. It confuses them when we walk. But thanks to that bloody newspaper article, they’re on to us.’ I nodded sympathetically, ‘yes, I wish the press would mind its own goddamn business.’ We silently watched the fish trying to scramble away from us for a while, the shark contemplating the vagaries of life and me enjoying the oxygen as an underwater hubbly bubbly. ‘You’ve got a bit of seaweed stuck to your upper lip,’ I solicitously pointed out to the shark. He scowled at me, ‘that’s my version of a holiday beard, having no chin and all. Actually, after having seen Jeremy Paxman’s attempt, I think I’m doing rather well,’ he said a bit smugly. ‘Sorry,’ I blurted, trying hard not to stare. ‘So, where did you summer this year?’ The shark sighed and gave its version of shrugging its shoulders, which would have been the subject of another excited article had any scientists or journalists been around: a shrugging shark! ‘We went to see my cuz in the Med. The place has become a dump,’ he answered disgustedly. I nodded in agreement, ‘yes all the tourist development can get a bit much.’ Once again the shark looked at me as if he’d run in to an uncomprehending mollusc that could not be eaten and had to be endured. ‘No, no. It’s just that on the European side they always used to dump lots of good stuff into the sea. Whole sides of beef sometimes in Greece. Those guys knew how to waste their souvlaki on a grand scale. But now, nada!’ I wanted to point out that he was mixing his Greek and his Spanish but thought better of it; you don’t want to annoy a shark, not even a walking one. He wasn’t done yet with his holiday gripes. ‘And off Syria, where we often used to find these bodies floating in the sea, as if they were executed by some madman but never mind, I got the most horrible chemical taste in my mouth and I was sick for days. I tell you, that ruined my break well and truly.’ I tutted in sympathy, ‘well at least you’re OK now and back home safe and sound.’ The shark started getting up from the rock he had been squatting on, ‘Yes, back to the grind of freaking out tourists.’ As he ambled away he called over his shoulder, ‘I’ve had it with Europe and the Middle East. Next year I’ll focus more on Asia, so catch you here again if you’re around.’ I watched him wiggle away, yes he did wiggle, and resolved firmly to stay home next year; who wants to hang out with a grumpy, hungry and sick shark, with blisters on its fins to boot?

Taking a dive

I’ve always been fascinated by that stuff. I want to experience what it’s like to be in a war

OK, I know I’m banging on about the war but ’twas not my intention when I came here for a nice weekend of diving. Bali, the island of the gods of mass tourism, complete with underwater traffic jams and prepubescent Legong dancing girls. Yet even here the war catches up with you, well me, in unexpected ways. And by the way, for someone used to the Middle East Bali’s supposedly strict security measures may seem touchingly low-key at the moment.

Anyway, on my first dive trip, and the drive to the site of the wreck of the USAT Liberty, I was joined by two gregarious young Americans, students at Wharton who just started a six month stint in Singapore, Ben and Arman. They duly asked me what I did for a living followed immediately by, “ever been to any war zones?”. For the next four hours, except underwater where talking is frowned upon, they continued to question me relentlessly on the subject. One of them in particular unhesitatingly expressed an interest in the mechanics of war, the personal danger etc. including the desire to actually be in a war. Short of joining up that is. I suppose because you don’t squander a degree from Wharton on the army.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with either of these seemingly reasonable and well-travelled business students. They sounded sincere and very well-informed. Who says that today’s students don’t follow the news?

What did strike me was their interest in my war stories. I’ve written before that usually people’s eyes start glazing over when I talk about my job and what I did in some conflict areas. I always thought it was me, the way I told it. But these two, a bit too long only to be polite, seemed genuinely interested, in the physical reality of the journalist, in the details of war and in some broader policy questions. They asked why journalists keep doing it if so many get killed. So sue me, I may have hammed it up a bit. Or maybe not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing and the people in my cohort have heard it all before. Who knows. Maybe it’s just that war is indeed a young men’s game and the younger we are, the more we’re fascinated by it.

We did two dives to the wreck of the US Army Transport Liberty, an American warship that was torpedoed off Bali during WWII. The two war-curious Wharton students thought the first dive a bit dull,we stayed well clear of the structure and just watched the marine life. But they went all hooyah over the second one when we ducked through some openings and hovered really close. None of it means much, except that I went for a dive.

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The Balinese coast at Candidasa

The Act of Killing

From Congo to Indonesia, doubts about the depiction of conflict

Coincidence? I think not. The main character in The Act of Killing, the documentary movie that is being promoted in the above trailer, is called Anwar Congo, a notorious Indonesian warlord who massacred communists in the 1960’s. I saw this problematic film hot on the heels of viewing the art documentary/installation on militias in Congo at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. My question then as now was: Is it exploitative, does it glamourise conflict? For me, the jury is still out on The Enclave, Richard Mosse’s Congo project, although a Congo-going friend and colleague outspokenly thinks so. But I have no such doubts about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. I find it tilting the wrong way, not just because of the deeds of Anwar Congo but because of the filmmaker’s choices. As a journalist, I sympathise with the difficulty involved in bringing horrendous stories to the attention of a larger public. But in this case, I feel that a line has been crossed and that, very much in the spirit of this age, storytelling veers into self-aggrandisement (And yes, I realise the irony of making such an accusation on a blog, the ultimate engine of self-promotion). The numerous times that the killer, Congo, directly addresses the filmmaker by name, Joshua this, Josh that, is in itself revealing. I assume that it could have been easily edited out. After all, Joshua has seven years worth of material. The most problematic part of the movie is the ending when a money shot sequence of Congo retching in regret offers the kind of redemptive finish that would make even a Hollywood exec blush. Joshua tries to play it cool and inoculate himself against charges of pandering by pointing out to Congo that his victims felt a lot worse than he does re-enacting their suffering – this is after all just a film while they knew they were going to die. The regretful retching comes after that, though, and goes on for quite a while. Together with the ambivalence of the rest of the movie, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It feels cheap and empty. If Congo really feels bad, what are the consequences? Does he kill himself? Does he ask his victims for forgiveness? Does he give himself up to be tried for war crimes? And if not, why do we not see him leading his life as if nothing happened? I wonder if this as either a lazy choice by the director or an easy melodramatic device. As it stands, it gives the impression of at least partial redemption for a mass murderer and as such confirms my unease about the rest of the movie. But yes, like The Enclave, it’s beautifully shot.