Indonesia is still a long way from launching a truth-and-reconciliation commission, let alone of purging the government of the corruption that continues as a legacy of Suharto’s reign. But, in a societal if not yet practical sense, the country is immeasurably closer to seeking justice than it was before The Act of Killing was released.
The film’s Indonesian co-director, who, like much of the crew, must remain anonymous for his safety, has made perhaps the most eloquent argument for the film’s unusual technique and its impact. In a statement released with the film, he wrote:
Through the imaginations and recollections of mass murderers featured, I understand, with particular clarity, how one of the devices of the old regime is still working so efficiently. It is the ‘projector’ that keeps playing, on an endless loop, a fiction film inside every Indonesian’s head. People like [Congo] and his friends are the projectionists, showing a subtle but unavoidable form of propaganda, which creates the kind of fantasy through which Indonesians may live their lives and make sense of the world around them; a fantasy that makes them desensitized to the violence and impunity that define our society.
What are the degrees of separation between indulging, ignoring, and exposing artifice? The Act of Killing challenges journalists to answer that question. The answer doesn’t lie in buying theater makeup and fedoras, but in a journalism that is patient and subtle enough to trace belief to action, and action to belief. It requires a journalism of the imagination that interrupts and reinterprets the stories already playing on an endless loop in our heads. Some of these stories we assume to be reality, and others we assume to be bullshit, but in either event they are stories we’ve been told—and have told ourselves—so many times that we lost the urge to examine them.