The mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-’66 left a deep mark on the nation’s collective psyche. Watching the documentary “The Act of Killing” about the atrocity when it was first screened in Indonesia in 2013, I felt shaken and nauseous. At the same time, I stayed alert because a vigilante group had threatened to storm the theater and stop the screening.
Not only does the film deal with a very controversial issue—the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians accused of being members or sympathizers of the Communist Party—but one of the killers, Anwar Congo, is the main storyteller. He explains in graphic detail how he killed his neighbors and other people he knew simply because they had a connection to a communist.
Since I was a child growing up in Bali, the story of the massacre had always been a taboo topic. It was a story so terrifying and grotesque that it haunted our lives and made us ashamed of who we are. My father’s generation—children when this atrocity occurred—grew up trying to forget it ever even happened.
When “The Act of Killing” was released, we welcomed it with a sigh of relief. Finally, the full story was told. From Congo’s narrative, we can see the beleaguered killer’s mind, caught between bigger forces, including a master puppet, who directed the killings from afar. Unable to make sense of the situation, Congo gives up, shuts his eyes, and gleefully follows instructions to murder his own people.
Tempo, the magazine that I work for, interviewed Congo and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and exposed similar killers, other Anwar Congos, in other parts of the country. The documentary forces everyone to open their eyes, to see what happened, and how it has shaped us. It’s time to face our demons.