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Documentary The 1965-66 Purge of Alleged Communists in Indonesia Left One Million Dead

Alex Constantine - January 8, 2013

By Grace Susetyo

Jakarta Globe, January 4, 2013

Joshua Oppenheimer’s controversial documentary “The Act of Killing” has attracted an overwhelming response since debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. The film — which has been screened in several countries, including in Indonesia where secret viewings are announced via social media — follows Medan-based paramilitary thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry over seven years, portraying re-enactments of their involvement in the 1965-1966 anti-communist purge.

The massacre slaughtered one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Yet for decades, Indonesia has applauded the event as the heroic “Victory of Pancasila.”

The reign of premanism (“gangsterism”) in Indonesia is a prominent theme of the film. A preman is a gangster who performs extortions for a living and creates the illusion of maintaining the community’s social order. The 1965-1966 genocide mobilized thousands of preman.

The film brilliantly portrays mass murderers as relatable humans. While it takes a strong stomach to watch the film, the scariest part is not the re-enactment of the murders, but the fact that viewers could find themselves pitying the killers by the end.

One of the co-directors, a 30-something self-taught filmmaker who assumed anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the film and potential threats to his safety, generously opened up to the Jakarta Globe for an exclusive behind-the-scenes story.

The ‘Act of Killing’ contrasts the Indonesian government’s view of what happened in 1965-1966. When did you start noticing a problem with the government’s version of history?

I was in elementary school. Our history quizzes had questions like ‘The PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] was proven to be involved in the G30S [30th September Movement] rebellion and is therefore dissolved and banned,’ which I had to answer by multiple choice: agree, disagree or unsure. Since my schoolbooks didn’t have enough information, I asked my father. He gave me many books and asked, ‘Is there proof that every single member of PKI were involved in G30S? And does the involvement of some people justify the dissolution of the entire party?’ So I answered unsure and prepared an argument to justify it.

But the teacher dictated the answers and I got poor grades. There was nothing to discuss. I didn’t know the word ‘indoctrination’ then, but noticed something wrong. So I hated school, though I loved math, physics and the arts because answers weren’t determined by the teacher. I kept reading books on the 1965-1966 purge and felt the repercussions as a university student in the 1990s. Many of those books were foreign academic papers and considered rare or ‘forbidden.’ But they were comparative sources that made more sense.

How did you react when Joshua presented his vision for ‘The Act of Killing?’

In 2004, he [Joshua] sent me an e-mail exploring the concept. Joshua convinced me that it was more important to see murderers as humans instead of monsters.

What do you think about the accusations that this film could be considered a heresy against the history of the Republic of Indonesia?

The history portrayed in the government-endorsed film ‘Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI’ is full of lies. Even Adi Zulkadry doubted it. When history does not make sense, that history needs to be juxtaposed with another history that makes more sense and enlightens the people with true knowledge. ‘The Act of Killing’ shows Indonesia’s true face: beastly, scarred and wounded. It is not pleasant to behold, but that is who we are. And now we have the choice to own those wounds and heal them, or don a false identity concealed with a beautiful mask.

How did this film change you?

I used to present an answer: that all the killers, their commanders and those who took advantage of the genocide must be prosecuted. Justice must be upheld in order for reconciliation to happen. The truth must be exposed. Official words of apology would not suffice and even that is yet to be uttered by this country’s leaders. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done. But without reducing the importance of justice, making this film opened my eyes to a problem just as big as prosecuting perpetrators, reconciliation and exposing truth by re-questioning the meaning of our humanity. How do we redefine what a ‘good person’ is and strive to be it?

Co-directing ‘The Act of Killing’ could pose potential threats to your safety. Why did you come on board?

Firstly, because that risk can be minimized by anonymity. Secondly, because I believe someone ought to do it. Indonesia remains devoid of democracy and humanity until the truth is exposed, genuine reconciliation happens and the Republic owns up to its wrongdoings. Yet democracy and humanity are two important values in Pancasila, which Indonesia claims as its foundation.

This film’s focal question is ‘What does it mean to be human?’ What do you have to say about the humanity of the mass murderers profiled?

All murderers are human, not monsters. They are humans who made the wrong calls and therefore committed the wrong acts. Someone provoked them to think a certain way and justify the murder. This lie felt so real and intertwined with their greedy personal interests. So their imagination makes it easier to commit violence and murder. However, Anwar Congo is a murderer with a heart. Anwar has trouble sleeping and is haunted by nightmares. Indonesian history books justify him but his conscience says otherwise.
It’s remarkable how the film starts with a jovial Anwar giving a tour of the massacre site while dancing the cha-cha. But in another visit to the place he is in tears and vomiting.

Anwar dances in the massacre site about a week after we first met him. He happily took a friend and re-enacted for us. Seven years later, when we revisited the place, he could no longer look at it, his deeds and himself the same way as he always had.

What was the most surprising development during filming?

When Anwar’s conscience finally made its way to expressing itself. It was a long and gradual process which took a lot of patience. Sometimes Anwar started feeling repentant but that feeling did not develop into anything more.

Anwar was in shock when he portrayed the victim in the interrogation scene. But we had no idea that watching the re-enactment and reflecting on his role as the victim would shake Anwar’s confidence so much. We knew that internalizing a character does wonders to a person’s self-awareness, but we had no idea it got this far. The scene opened a path for Anwar’s guilt to surface. We were surprised that he could no longer dance on his final visit to the massacre site.

What are the chances of the thugs being prosecuted by the International Court of Justice?

Little to none. The ICJ only prosecutes national or regional leaders — people like Suharto or Sarwo Edhie Wibowo. Furthermore, ICJ only prosecutes leaders of defeated regimes who have been declared guilty by the people they used to rule.

Neither Indonesia’s parliament nor the Court of Human Rights have acknowledged the wrongdoings of past regimes. There has never been any international condemnation or serious endeavors to see the 1965-1966 purge as a crime against humanity. The genocide paved the way for foreign investments and foreign control over Indonesia’s natural resources, so Western countries have actually welcomed it.

We are not interested in getting Anwar, Adi, or the other killers prose cuted, unless all the commanders responsible for the massacre have been punished. Punishing minor killers without looking at the entirety of the system and context of 1965-1966 would only conserve the regime built upon that massacre. Adi and Anwar would be scapegoats, while the most responsible people remain protected.

What are some common Indonesian misconceptions on communism?

The media frames the communists for ‘inhumane torture’ in Lubang Buaya, whereas forensic evidence indicated otherwise. Schools teach that G30S was the PKI’s endeavor to dethrone the government and replace Pancasila with communism. What nonsense. G30S documents indicate that the operation was meant to protect President Sukarno and none indicated that PKI intended to change Indonesia’s ideology.

Indonesians have been made to believe that communism is dangerous. Yet under Suharto’s 32-year reign, other isms — fascism and authoritarianism — stripped Indonesians of their rights. Why aren’t those banned? What about capitalism? Is it completely supportive of human rights? We need to see adherents of any ideology as human beings. Ideology-based conflicts must be viewed as the struggle of one human being against another, not as the struggle of saints and angels against demons.

Hypothetically, what do you think communist Indonesia would be like?

It’s difficult for me to speculate. But I’ve read that there are three possibilities.

Firstly: Indonesia could suffer a setback, just like Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Or stagnate like East Germany and Cuba. Secondly: Indonesia would neither set-back nor skyrocket, but people would have better livelihoods because communism and democracy balance each other. Thirdly: Indonesia, like Communist China, could be a world-class industrial country, especially if it had the independence of managing its own wealth of natural resources.

But it doesn’t matter which ideology would advance or set back Indonesia. For me, every form of mind control is a setback. What ruins this country is not ideology or ideas, but crimes against humanity left unprosecuted. Political and economic advancements depend on people who honor human dignity.

‘The Act of Killing’ has been viewed by more than 1,500 people in Indonesia over the past three months, according to the filmmakers. For more information online, visit facebook.com/the.act.of.killing or follow @theactofkilling on Twitter.


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  1. Hello, thank you for republishing this article, originally published in the Jakarta Globe on January 4, 2013. I have since not been able to find the original on the Jakarta Globe’s website, and for a long time I gave people the link to your re-blog instead–which I believe used to have my byline as per the original all this time. But as I was checking today, my byline wasn’t there anymore. So I’m kindly asking you to reinstate my byline (Grace Susetyo for the Jakarta Globe, January 4, 2013). Much appreciated.

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