The Act of Killing and Money-printing

The new @joshuaoppenheim documentary, The Act of Killing, is fantastic. The Oscar-nominated film follows Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry (Indonesian “gangsters”) as they recount in surprisingly honest and gruesome detail their murderous exploits from the mass killings of the early Suharto era.

Their frankness seems buoyed by two factors. First, director Joshua Oppenheimer uses a novel interview/investigation technique, where he encourage Congo and colleagues to “re-enact” the killings. These guys are huge movie buffs, so it appeals to their own desires to imitate Hollywood action stars. This is a brilliant way to get around what might otherwise be a very guarded conversation.

But the other factor is perhaps equally important, which is that Indonesia has never gone through a meaningful national reconciliation process for events that involved the deaths of up to three million people. Congo’s frank admissions define the psychological consequences of complete immunity, in ways that would startle students of even (say) Latin American mass murders.

In focusing so much on a few personalities, the film inevitably leaves out historical context. Viewers that have never studied Indonesia will be left with all sorts of questions, starting with,who are the main characters, sociologically speaking? Congo and colleagues describe themselves as “free men”, but the subtitles mostly translate this as “gangster”. Is this the right translation? These people seem like some mix of paramilitary leader, extortionist, and elected official.

According to the collectively distilled wisdom over on Wikipedia, Indonesian jagos or “premans” (from the Dutch vrijman or  freeman) have a history going back to precolonial times. Because of the historically weak and non-centralized Indonesian state, jagos/premans served functions as varied as tax collector, protector of revolutionary leaders, and  then killer of revolutionary leaders. These individuals were inextricably linked to what passed for state power before, during, and after colonial times. This seems to be at the nub of how they confess to killing without fear.

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