Premiere Night, Denpasar
I remember my friend Judith telling me that the private premiere of The Act of Killing might be cancelled due to politico-religious tension, and that I probably shouldn’t tell others the film is coming to Bali—the very island where some of these acts took place.
In behind a sleek store-front of black and white keys and drum kits, in a few chairs sat fewer people. A woman took our names, Twitters, emails. Our host arrived with sweat on his brow, genially introducing himself, explaining he had lost family members to the genocide that we would see uncovered in a film that seeks to do no less than amend our accounts of recent history.
A Delicate Subject
After the show, in the light of a food seller’s lantern, we talked about national shame–those skeletons dispersed bit-by-bit into everyone’s closets. It was something we all had in common, and we spoke from the heart our wants to be forgiven, to not see history repeated.
In North America, to call someone a communist is still a jocular insult that you will hear. And while we learn about Joseph McCarthy, The Cold War, Cuba, it seems only euphemisms describe what was international genocide, a holocaust yet atoned for. And Indonesia, where a majority of these killings occurred—where you would die for singing genjer genjer, or wearing a pair of glasses—was not a footnote.
The film reveals Indonesia and America have even more to own up to. Especially because the movement to combat communism, known as G 30 S PKI in Indonesia isn’t finished.
Students are being denied access to Universities because their ancestors, living or dead, were labelled communists some sixty years ago. Others are required to pay more for the same education—again because they’re commies. Post-secondary students are required to sit through a painful piece of anti-communist propaganda, and follow it up with an essay to show compliance with a twisted application of the Pancasila (the five rules that all citizens should live by–and defend). Some of them mass murderers, the executioners were never punished, but in many cases are still praised as defenders of the nation, like the fantastical anti-hero of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo.
- THE ACT OF KILLING, Anwar Congo and his grandchildren, 2012. ©Drafthouse Films/courtesy Everett Collection
The Gita & Detachment as Virtue
To move on with their lives, these executioners rely on flimsy crutches and some brilliant coping mechanisms. Some, like the country itself, seem to have an elastic memory, allowing them to lepas tangan, or wash their hands of history.
A Chinese-Jakartan friend concurs that the film might only impose white guilt on people of a different colour, however. While concepts of death, fate, karma, are diverse–should we not be universally responsible for the deaths of others, at the very least? How could you disagree with that, right? Well…
Consumed and repeated throughout the archipelago, the Bhagavad Gita details an attitude of total detachment in ones actions–especially when following orders. The idea is explained on a battlefield as Arjuna encourages Krishna to slaughter his own relatives, which in turn he does. I posit that the Gita is more a poetic document of this mentality, as much as it in turn fosters this unusual paradigm. And while this idea may have had Bali labelled a ‘resort island’, made synonymous with hospitality, it is likely somewhat of a transferable skill.
Reconciliation: Caterpillars in Seed Pods
In the sequel documentary, The Look of Silence, that premiered at the same venue, recurring shots of Mexican jumping beans, seed pods that appear to wiggle as the caterpillars inside of them squirm to emerge as moths, became the perfect symbol for a quiet hope that this will some day be acknowledged and put to rest.