We meet a newspaper publisher who was secretary general of the anti-communist forces that participated in the massacre in North Sumatra, and who actually used his newspaper’s building as a base for the killings. He takes Oppenheimer’s cameraman on a tour of his office to see the photos of him with prominent Indonesian politicians. He then confesses casually to using his newspaper as a mouthpiece for anti-leftist propaganda—“My job was to make the public hate them,” he says—and to ordering torture and execution. Near the end of the interview, Oppenheimer presses him on a detail of how the executions were carried out. “Why would I do such grunt work?” he responds. “One wink from me and they’re dead.”
In another scene, we visit a gathering of Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group that grew out of the massacre and remains active in Indonesia. It claims 3 million members and runs a nationwide network of gambling, racketeering, and extortion operations with tacit approval from the Indonesian government—or at least the approval seems tacit, until Oppenheimer films a government official donning the organization’s orange-an-black fatigues and courting members with a rousing speech that includes lines such as, “We need gangsters to get things done,” and, “Beating people up is sometimes needed.”
The farther up the chain we go, the more we understand that Congo’s image of himself as a hero is not just the delusion of a sociopath, but a fantasy that pervades the highest reaches of Indonesian society. One of The Act of Killing’s most horrifying scenes takes place not at the site of a mass grave but on the set of a talk show in North Sumatra. Congo and his friends are invited on air to discuss their glamorous foray into filmmaking, and then are praised for developing the choking technique that became a “new, more efficient method for exterminating communists.” The peppy female host stresses this line, at which point the audience bursts into applause.
While these powerful men are the closest we get to obvious villains in The Act of Killing, the film doesn’t go out of it’s way to frame them as such. There’s no cut to an interview with a persecuted political opponent to sharpen our reaction to the one with the newspaper publisher. Congo is never confronted by his victims’ families. What’s more, The Act of Killing contains little in the way of historical context. It doesn’t attempt to explain which portion of guilt should go to the Indonesian military that masterminded the killings, or to the Western governments that gave them direct aide to do so, or to the thugs like Congo who did the garroting and stabbing.
The film’s lack of moral handholding makes many people deeply uncomfortable, but this ambiguity is the key to its power. Without a binary of victims and villains, the viewer is unsure whom to root for or against. Indonesians aren’t offered an affirmation or a rebuttal of the façade being presented, and so they can’t fall back on their past assumptions when deciding what to think about the film or its characters. Outside of Indonesia, this moral complexity helps explain why The Act of Killing has managed to shock audiences that, after a century of unfathomable violence, have become inured to the notion of death squad leaders doing horrible things in distant lands. Shock at the killers’ performance of impunity—an emotion expressed by critics and audience members worldwide—is inextricable from shock at the original deed itself. The concept of mass murder is woefully unsurprising to the average news consumer, but seeing it celebrated without any counterbalance from the victims’ perspective presents a messy moral universe, one that audience members themselves must resolve, since the film doesn’t do it for them.