Art and Structural Violence: A Reflection on ‘The Act of Killing’

Foucault states that power’s success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms (1978: 86). But what happens when power, acquired with means of violence, not only hides itself but is applauded by masses? What if violence becomes a trait of an identity that is celebrated? The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ precisely acts as a form of art that describes the indescribable answers to the questions above and speaks to us ‘when words fail’ (Žižek, 2008). In this essay, I will be looking into the film ‘The Act of Killing’, and write about the ‘banality of evil’ (Arendt, 1977) that has taken place in the mass killings of so-called ‘communists’ in Indonesia during 1965. While doing so, I would also like to reflect on the role of such documentaries in voicing an example of multi-dimensional (Lukes, 1974) structural violence. First, I will touch upon the methods of representation used in forming a public view of ‘communists’ that have led to approved mass killings, as described in the film. Then, I will analyze how being able to create an imaginary label of ‘non-humaneness’, such as a ‘communist’, produces scenes that reflect the banality of evil. In other words, I will investigate acts of violence that take place after stripping a certain group of people of their humanity. Finally, I will explain how such documentaries can lead towards a wider awareness in public, and argue why such methods should be practiced more instead of traditional ‘humanitarian’ efforts of creating urgencies to act, which can become a destructive weapon, as presented in the film.

The documentary can be watched here

When it comes to knowledge production and representation of so-called ‘communists’, I would like to investigate the words of Ibrahim Sinik, who is a journalist that is a close ally to Pancasila paramilitary organization which has played a huge role in the mass killings. In one of the interviews, when asked about what questions Sinik had asked communists, he states that as a newspaperman, his job was to make the public hate the communists and “make them look bad” accordingly. Such attempts of forging a specific image of communists on a state-level can also be observed in the mentioned state propaganda movie in the documentary, which was designed to portray communists as inhumane violent subjects. It is the creation of such a ‘face’ which eventually became a source of justification for the acts of mass murderers such as Anwar Congo, who states that even though children who were mandatorily brought to cinemas were traumatized by the movie, he felt proud deep inside because he had murdered communists that looked so barbarous in the propaganda film. Such diverse methods in otherizing a certain group of people and creating a ground for ruling them certainly resemble Edward Said’s idea of Orientalism (Said, 2007); except, the ‘Orient’ is replaced with ‘communist’ in this case. The Orient was most of the times determined by a person’s geolocation (as an opposed to ‘Western’ or Occident); however, when it comes to the imaginary label of a communist, one is faced with ambiguity about who really is a communist or what makes a person a communist, as filmed in the documentary. Certainly, the label’s over-use could be heard throughout various interviews but the traits that make a communist in Indonesia are not explicitly mentioned. Throughout various reenactments of killing scenes, the term ‘communist’ was filled with different types of individuals; whether ethnic Chinese, atheist, or the imam that does calls to prayers. Hence, we are reminded once again about how such obscure labeling becomes a rationalization of resorting to violence, as the case is also evident in Jasbir Puar’s work in which Israel justifies attacks on Palestinian citizens and infrastructures by invoking phrases such as “terrorists” and “terrorist infrastructures” (2017). The documentary also reveals how the label was used to eliminate individuals that were considered as a threat to the personal gains of those that were granted permission to kill. For instance, Anwar, who financially depended on the black market for Hollywood movies, claims to have killed ‘communists’ that wanted to boycott certain movies, as said in the documentary. This example of Anwar relates to Bueno and Willis’ work on police prisoners which focuses on the policemen, granted authority by the modern state, who blatantly kill innocent citizens in Latin America (2019). Hence, one can question which individuals benefit the most in such structural acts of violence by painting a broader and clearer picture of incitement to violence. In the case of Indonesia, it was the those that lusted for political power and wealth as the people that took part in killings were interconnected with many government officials and institutions and were usually a part of a higher socio-economic class (as is evident in the personal life of the President of Pancasila, in the documentary).

After looking into the ways in which a ‘common enemy’ is dehumanized, now I would like to investigate the aftermath of such knowledge production by touching upon the notion of ‘banality of evil’, as is evident both in the documentary and in the press notes of the director Joshua Oppenheimer. When explaining the events that led to the shooting of the film, Oppenheimer states his bewilderment when the perpetrators of the killings heroically described their killings to him and were thus more than happy to boastfully reenact their techniques of murdering. Throughout many conversations and reenactments of murders in the film, the gangsters constantly stress on the point that what they had done by killing masses of communists was in favor of the nation and of humanity, as the unity of the nation was preserved and the world was purged of ‘inhumane people’. And such a constructed heroism is not only celebrated among Pancasila youth but by a wider audience in Indonesia. The case of a wider national celebration is apparent in the film when Anwar and other killers get invited to Indonesian National Television after the gangsters’ filming of their ‘heroism’ was becoming heard and required amplification “to commemorate the extermination of the communists”, in host’s words. During the TV show in the documentary, the host continues to proudly introduce Pancalisa’s ‘accomplishments’ by honoring their “more efficient system for exterminating communists, which was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence…”. The utterance of such words by the host reflects a greater question of the banality of evil. Because, like most citizens, she probably thought that she was doing nothing but fulfilling her duty to her nation by commemorating people that are declared as historic heroes by higher structural powers, such as the Indonesian state. Such a case of banality in ‘innocently’ taking part of great structural acts of violence resembles both Hannah Arendt’s investigation of Eichmann’s words in his trial regarding the massacre of Jews (1977), and Didier Fassin’s research of policing morality (or brutality) which was happily welcomed by the deputy commissioner as ‘they had nothing to hide’ (2018). Thus, we reach to the point of my argument that the portrayed violence not only hides itself, which would be sufficient for Foucault to claim ‘successful’ but is also praised. In short, in the case of Indonesia, we are faced with a structure of violence supported by various state institutions in which the traditional understanding of violence has been given new forms and dimensions to construct a topsy-turvy reality for many citizens to blatantly yet ‘innocently’ be a part of. 

After raising and identifying the problem of partaking in evil due to immense layers of violence and representation, the next step would be asking ‘what can be done to raise awareness?’. It is this part of the essay in which I would like to oppose the traditional ‘humanitarian’ calls and attempts of urgency and be an advocate of different means of artistic expression. First, it should be understood that the ‘humanitarian calls’ creates an environment of mostly fake urgency in which actors are not given any space to ‘wait and see’ by means of patient, critical analysis. (Žižek, 2008). If we dig deeper into the case of communists in Indonesia, it is apparent that the way communists were exterminated reflects the similarity of fake urgencies caused in the 1960s by a certain group of people against ‘communists’ in Indonesia. In other words, the means which was probably used in creating an atmosphere of crisis and urgency against communists in Indonesia in 1965 is perhaps not so different from the calls to urgent humanitarian acts formed by the discourse of human rights; hence making such humanitarian calls vulnerable to exhibiting violence to certain individuals as is evident in the cases when neoliberal employers such as sex-workers face obstacles created by NGOs and other human rights organizations that label them as victims of ‘sex trafficking’ and that pursue ways of inhibiting sex-work businesses (Cheng and Kim, 2014). On the other hand, the documentary The Act of Killing itself serves as an example of referring to art when attempting to raise awareness about violence. And by looking at the impact of the film both locally and globally, one can say that the film has succeeded in creating the required shocking effect that paints the picture of the constructed topsy-turvy world which was mentioned previously. Galuh Wandita puts this shocking event in words as “stripped naked, we look into the mirror and see our blemished selves, every ugly scar and pore.” (2014). As Garry van Klinken touches upon, towards the end in the documentary, one can witness a drastic change of Anwar’s perspective of his own actions. At the start of the documentary, Anwar, in a rooftop dances happily while boastfully describing his actions of killing. In the end, however, in the same rooftop, we witness a different Anwar who struggles to utter words in describing the killings he had done and keeps retching and retching while the words resist being voiced (2014). And throughout the documentary, we witness the eventual self-reflection of Anwar who comes to a point of fearing whether all the things he had done were coming back to him. So, the film not only has created an impact on viewers globally and locally but has also transformed (to a certain extent) the actors who were the exhibitors of the horrible killings of innocent lives. Hence, I would label The Act of Killing as a silence breaker that speaks for the voiceless, such as the families of victims who continue to live in fear throughout decades. 

In conclusion, the use of various art forms as a means of raising awareness of ongoing acts and representations of structural violence should not be neglected but practiced more, in contrast to urgent humanitarian calls that are susceptible to laying the groundwork for further violence. I believe that The Act of Killing perfectly fits as an example that successfully displays the methods used in creating ‘dehumanized’ subjects. In addition, the film’s ability to reflect the deep societal roots of the wide acceptance of mass killings provide a ground to re-reflect on the notion of ‘banality of evil’; and perhaps ignite thoughts about whether we ourselves are a part of such turning wheels of violence. 


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Cheng, S. and Kim, E. (2014) “The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism: Migrant Korean Sex workers and ‘Sex Trafficking’”, Social Politics, 21(3): 355-381.
Galuh Wandita, “PREMAN NATION: Watching The Act of Killing in Indonesia,” Critical AsianStudies46.1 (2014): 167-170
Gerry van Klinken, “No, The Act Of Killing Is Not Unethical,” Critical Asian Studies46.1 (2014):176-178.

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