The Absence of Violence in The Act of Killing

Dr Annie Pohlman

I was sorely disappointed, as were so many, that Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (TAOK) did not win the Academy Award earlier this month for best documentary. It is a rare film indeed which can force such physical reactions in its audience: TAOK made me laugh, sickened me and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, repeatedly. In so many ways, I applaud this film. My applause comes both from a personal perspective, in appreciation of the tremendous achievements of this documentary, and from that of an academic whose own research overlaps very closely with the content and issues raised in TAOK.

On a personal level, Oppenheimer’s film asks us as individuals to look more closely, and more carefully, at what perpetrators do, feel, and how they justify their actions to themselves. Having seen the film a few times now, I am discomforted, but strangely not surprised or horrified, by how close I feel to the perpetrators of mass violence by the end of the film. On a personal level, I cannot help but wonder if this is what the film is asking: are we all capable of such violence? This is probably not a question I ever want to answer.

My reactions to watching Oppenheimer’s TAOK also stem from my own work over the past decade. As a researcher of the mass killings and mass political detention of Communist ‘sympathisers’ during the mid-1960s in Indonesia, I have interviewed more than 200 survivors of these mass atrocities, most of them women who were either witnesses to the killings or who survived the detention camps. An estimated 500,000 men, women and children were killed in 1965-1966, but a further one million people were rounded up and held in these detention camps for months or years where torture, starvation and forced labour were common.

The protagonists of Oppenheimer’s film are the killers themselves; the main character, Anwar Congo, and his assorted unsavoury henchmen are self-described preman (gangsters/criminals) who gained power through their cooperation with the Indonesian military in detaining, torturing and murdering members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia).

As a researcher of this period of mass atrocities in Indonesian history, I am truly impressed not only that Oppenheimer and his team were able to convince perpetrators of the mass killings to speak with him about their actions (and that they did so on film), but that he was able to convince so many perpetrators to participate. As the director has stated, Anwar Congo was the 41st perpetrator interviewed by him.  While the military regime which rose to power during the massacres, General Suharto’s New Order, may have ended fifteen years ago, the stigmatisation and harassment of survivors and the celebration of the killings have continued to affect how these events are retold and remembered (or forgotten) in Indonesia. Carrying out research on 1965 is difficult, sensitive and sometimes dangerous work, particularly for the men and women survivors, and their families, who make the choice to speak about their experiences. I cannot but applaud the dedication and skill that have gone into making this masterful anti-documentary. And I hope that Oppenheimer and his team will make use of their other interview materials with perpetrators, so that we may learn more about the motivations and actions of those who took part in capturing, torturing and murdering so many of their fellow Indonesians.

TAOK has revitalised, certainly among international circles, attention to this dark part of Indonesian history which has gone mostly unnoticed on the world stage. Oppenheimer and his (mostly Indonesian) team have been awarded a long list of festival and critics’ awards, including a BAFTA. The film itself has been taken up in many ways by different interest groups: by human rights groups to draw international attention to the killings; by some academic and activist circles to lobby the Indonesian government to acknowledge and redress the killings (e.g. ‘Say Sorry for 65’ campaign coordinated by TAPOL); and by others to draw attention to the role of some Western powers in supporting, and even directly financing, the massacres.

Inside Indonesia, the reactions have been varied; from hot debates in the nation’s top media outlets, to the occasional public statements by government officials (some supportive of looking into the past, others justifying the killings), to blatant disinterest. Although not officially banned in Indonesia, the film did not receive an official release and has therefore only been screened at underground and select public venues. In the media debates, there have been complaints that the film was made by foreigners (the film crew, including one of the co-directors, were mostly Indonesian nationals) and that, as such, it misinterprets or misrepresents this episode in Indonesian history.

Personally, I do not think that this film will fade away, either internationally or domestically in Indonesia. The strength of this film lies both in the horrors which it portrays and in those horrors which it does not. The first time I saw TAOK, I was annoyed and indignant because I felt that there were so many people missing from the film: the victims, their families, and all of the dead. The second time I watched the film, however, I started to see how all three were ever-present.

In the scene where Anwar Congo and one of his followers take Oppenheimer to the shop rooftop where he acts out his method of garrotting his victims, he alludes to how many ghosts there must be there. Certainly Anwar’s steps are followed by the dead. While he may do what he can to ignore them during the day, at night he feels them in his dreams as he sweats and turns in his bed. Anwar’s neighbour, Suryono, tells the group of former killers during a break in filming how his step-father was taken away and butchered in the night, his body left out like that of an animal to rot. As we watch Suryono only minutes later as he plays out the part of a victim of torture, we cannot help but feel that his step-father, and so many others tortured and killed in the detention centres which stretched across the archipelago, are in the room. Indeed, the dead are felt at many points throughout the film: in my annoyance, I had simply missed them the first time I watched the film.

The omission of victims’ perspectives and that of their families was a deliberate choice by Oppenheimer and his team in making this documentary; as University of Sydney academic Vannessa Hearman has written, “The exclusion of victims from TAOK is therefore also a comment on the invisibility of victims in Indonesia.”[1]

The same is true of the portrayal of sexual violence in TAOK. As the focus of my research on mass violence of 1965-1966 has been on sexual violence against women and girls during this period, when I first watched the film, I was taken aback. Sexual violence was pervasive during the killings and in the detention camps, so I wondered why wasn’t this made clear in the film? Once again, it was only in my second viewing that I realised that it was.

At several points in the film, we see the blatant and casual sexual harassment and objectification of young women: examples include the dancing girls who should dance “more hot” out of the surreal giant fish and the leader of the Pancasila Youth, Yapto Surjosumarno, and his treatment of his golf caddy, a young woman who asks for his autograph, and his laughter at a joke about a girl who performs oral sex on numerous men because she ‘wants it’. When watching this film for the third time, and for the first time with a group of people at a screening of the film on a university campus in Australia, these moments produced laughter from the audience. In her analysis of the film, Dutch researcher Saskia E. Wieringa discusses themes of sexualised violence and the demonisation of Communist women, such as in the portrayal of the character ‘Aminah’ – the supposedly mad Communist woman played by Anwar’s sidekick, the fat Herman Koto in drag.[2] Again, in the scenes in which Herman plays Aminah, with great comic effect, the audience laughed and so did I. The misogynist treatment and depictions of women in these ways, however, are not coincidental nor are they merely meant to provide moments of light hilarity to break up the more ‘serious’ and confronting portrayals of violence: they are fundamental to understanding the widespread nature of sexual violence.

For me, the very short, seemingly aside scenes which touch on the issue of sexual violence are those which also speak to the pervasive nature of this violence. The most obvious is the scene which shows Safit Pardede, a ‘local paramilitary leader’ and former killer during 1965 who joins Anwar Congo and his team in creating their film. Safit sits off to the side, surrounded by other men who are taking a break from their re-enactment of the massacre of a village. The men laugh and catcall as Safit tells them about raping women during the killings in 1965. If they were pretty, he’d ‘rape them all’. He boasts that raping fourteen-year-old girls was the ‘best’, and how it would be heaven for him, but hell for them. The laugher, Safit’s description of ‘fucking everything’ he could because they were ‘the law back then’ reveals, in these short moments, both the widespread nature of sexual violence against women and girls during the mass violence of 1965 and the impunity with which this violence was perpetrated. Shortly after this scene, we see the re-enactment of the massacre of a village, in which the men, women and children who were hired to act as the victims re-create, in a fiery and blackened nightmare scene, the destruction of human life en masse. You see the victims being dragged into piles of human flesh or being taken out into the surrounding forest, and you see the women being grabbed, their clothes pulled and torn. After the killers yell, ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’, the children are inconsolable and one women is clearly overwhelmed and needs to be revived. Once again, these short scenes reveal much despite saying little in the film about the volume of sexual violence perpetrated in 1965.

Lastly, we must remember that The Act of Killing is the first of two documentaries. The first forces us to confront the killers. The second in the series is The Look of Silence, to be released later this year, and is about the survivors. Specifically, it will tell the story of a family of survivors and their interactions with the men who killed their son. I do not believe that it will be a story of redemption, reconciliation, or hope. Because the history of 1965 in Indonesia, so far, promises us none of these things.

Dr Annie Pohlman is Lecturer in Indonesian Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is author of Women, Sexual Violence and the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966 (Routledge, 2014); and edited a Special Issue, ‘The Massacres of 1965–1966: New Interpretations and the Current Debate in Indonesia”, in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. The Act of Killing was recently shown at the University of Queensland POLSIS Film Series.


[1] Vannessa Hearman, “‘Missing Victims’ of the 1965-66 Violence in Indonesia: Representing Impunity On-screen in The Act of Killing,” Critical Asian Studies 46, no. 1 (2014): 171-75.

[2] Saskia E. Wieringa, “Sexual Politics as a Justification for Mass Murder in The Act of Killing,” Critical Asian Studies 46, no. 1 (2014): 195-99.

An analysis of UN Secretary-General New Report on Atrocities Prevention

ImageThe Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention, released last month, is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s fifth report on the responsibility to protect. It explores the idea that lies at the principle’s core – that primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing lies with each individual state. While state responsibility for protection – which also entails effective prevention – may appear obvious, the role that local and national actors play is frequently overlooked in the research on conflict prevention in general, and mass atrocities prevention more specifically. Much is known about how and why state responsibility manifestly fails, but little is known about what responsible sovereignty looks like, particularly when the risk of potential atrocities is salient. The Secretary-General acknowledged this blind spot in his 2009 report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: ‘More research and analysis is needed on why one society plunges into mass violence while its neighbours remain relatively stable…’

This fifth report marks an important step in understanding the character of effective state responsibility. Such an approach is needed for two key reasons. First, as the report points out, no state is entirely absent of risk, therefore the challenge of prevention remains universal. Second, there are numerous examples of nationally and locally driven initiatives – already in practice – that provide insights into the varied ways that national resilience is strengthened and the risk of potential atrocities is mitigated. Cumulatively, these insights comprise a powerful repository of knowledge that every state can draw on to consider ways to strengthen their sovereignty through improved strategies of prevention. 

The Secretary-General frames this understanding of state responsibility by first identifying key risk factors associated with mass atrocities, then providing illustrations of the ways that states devise strategies which strengthen national resilience and manage such risk over time. The relationship between risk and resilience is complex, deeply contextual and dynamic. In order to convey just how varied and contextually driven the process of risk mitigation is, the report provides a number of specific examples policies and strategies from many different states, all which, in their own ways, strengthen national resilience.

The report stresses that atrocities crimes are processes, ‘not singular events’, for which there is no sole cause or simple set of causes. Instead, there are a range of factors that are associated with the increased risk of atrocity crimes. While the presence of risk does not inevitably lead to the perpetration of atrocities, these crimes are rarely committed in their absence. Six broad factors are identified:

  1. A history of discrimination and human rights violations.
  2. The motivation to target a specific identity group.
  3. The presence of armed groups, or militia, who have the capacity to commit atrocity crimes.
  4. The arising of circumstances that make committing atrocity crimes easier (such as the existence of a policy of targeting civilians, or a strengthening of military capacity).
  5. The inability of a government to prevent such violence, through lack of capacity or the absence of institutions that normally protect a population.
  6. The perpetration of violence that are regarded as ‘elements of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity’ often herald an escalation of violence.

The report then points out that actions by states to confront such risk can be instrumental in both reducing risk and building resilience in a way that enables it to ‘navigate periods of stress’. It identifies six broad sources of resilience:

  1. Constitutional protections;
  2. Democracy;
  3. State obligations under international law to criminalise genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the development of national accountability mechanisms;
  4. Transitional justice processes (where appropriate);
  5. Security sector reform;
  6. Measures that address actual or perceived inequalities.

In the report, each broad measure that strengthens resilience is accompanied by illustrations of specific policies and strategies implemented by different states. For instance, in relation to constitutional protection, the report describes three very different approaches. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures equality of all Canadians, ‘regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, age or physical or mental disability.’ A different example is Croatia’s Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities, which gives all the country’s minority groups to be represented in political, administrative and legal institutions at every level. In South Africa, a broad system of rights for ‘cultural, linguistic, religious and traditional communities’ is acknowledged through ‘the harmonization of customary law with human rights principles.’ These diverse examples provide a glimpse of just how contextually specific such strategies are.

The report also identifies the development of national infrastructure for the promoting and upholding of human rights, as another means of strengthening state resilience. It points out that human rights institutions can play a crucial role in atrocity prevention through the promotion of international standards of human rights and monitoring the integration of such rights into domestic law.

Beyond these broad approaches, the report also highlights some specific measures that can be adopted to incorporate an ‘atrocity prevention lens’ with national governments. In particular, it encourages the designation of an atrocity prevention or RtoP focal point, or an inter-agency mechanism which helps to orchestrate national efforts to formalize plans for atrocity prevention.

The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention makes a significant and original contribution to the prevention of mass atrocities in three major ways.

First, it challenges the tendency found in much of the literature on conflict prevention to prioritize the role of external actors in deciding not only what the root causes of potential violence are, but also the best strategies for addressing them. Often a distinction is made between prevention actors on the one hand and prevention recipients on the other. By contrast, this report assumes primary agency to lay with each state, and on that assumption it provides illustrations of how various state-based policies and strategies have strengthened resilience and mitigated risk. Understanding national sources of resilience is important even when international assistance is needed, as it allows for such assistance to facilitate processes already in place.

Second, the report stresses that it is necessary to understand national sources of resilience because the presence of risk does not inevitably lead to genocide or other atrocity crimes. The tenuous causal relationship between the presence of risk and the perpetration of atrocity crimes is well known by scholars of comparative genocide studies. However, there has been very little research within the field of comparative genocide studies on why such violence does not occur, particularly when there is at least a moderate level of risk. By addressing that question, this report explores a neglected yet crucial dimension of atrocities prevention.

Third, through the promotion of atrocities prevention focal points, it makes a strong case for ways that states can engage in prevention without over-burdening already stretched national budgets. Focal points have the potential to cast a preventive lens over existing policies and strategies that already have their own specific objectives, and demonstrate how they also have a protective effect against atrocity crimes. By doing so, it precludes the need for a distinct set of strategies and resources. When states have institutions that are accountable and inclusive, and are able to provide services and promote opportunities in an equitable manner, then they are already mitigating the risk of atrocity crimes. Focal points for atrocity prevention provide clarity and guidance for such processes.

As the Secretary-General stresses, ‘there is no one-size-fits-all approach to atrocities prevention.’ Effective prevention must be tailored to each country’s unique historical, cultural, economic and demographic circumstances. Those that know these circumstances best – local and national actors – have the greatest capacity to generate long term strategies that manage and reduce the risk of atrocities over time.

Stephen McLoughlin, Griffith University