Whether this moment is an act of contrition or just one more performance is debatable, but the debate is sort of beside the point. Congo’s reaction represents a realization that the massacre could be seen as something other than an act of heroism. Oppenheimer’s interpretation is that the moment shows Congo “choking on the terror that comes when you look at the abyss between yourself and your image of yourself.” Defining journalism as an effort to expose that gap seems highly compatible with more traditional notions of journalism’s mission.
Maybe the most interesting thing about The Act of Killing is that it has forced this realization not just on Congo, but on Indonesian society broadly. It’s hard to imagine a work of traditional journalism having a similar impact on a nation. Oppenheimer says the film has come to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, exclaiming that “the King is naked.” It has presented the story of the massacre so forcefully, and in the words of the killers themselves, that this gauzy national myth is now a reality that demands a reckoning.
While The Act of Killing has since been shown publicly in Indonesia, the editors of Tempo, the country’s largest newsmagazine, watched it at a closed screening in Jakarta in 2012. The magazine’s reporters and editors had never before addressed the killings from the perspective of the victims, but the film inspired them to send 47 journalists across the country to gather evidence. On October 1, 2012, Tempo published a double issue on the massacre. According to Oppenheimer, this “set the tone for the Indonesian media. And now the country’s leading historians, filmmakers, artists, writers, educators, journalists, and human-rights activists are saying ‘We have to deal with it.’ ”
Writing in Tempo, one critic said, “The Act of Killing is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel.”
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.