The Act of Killing is a remarkable documentary where the line between performance and reality seems to blur or dissolve altogether. The documentary tackles a dark chapter in Indonesian history that still casts a long shadow on today’s Indonesian society: the systematic killings of over 3.5 million so-called communists – most of them being labelled as a communist because they were a part of the Chinese minority. In the documentary, the butchers of bygone days merrily reenact their crimes to create a movie. One scene, in particular, stands out: Anwar Congo – a self-proclaimed butcher having murdered over 1000 “communists” back in the day – has cast his neighbour, Suryono, as a torture victim in the movie they are making. In between filming, Suryono tries to address the butchers and their crimes of the past:
But if you want a true story, I have one […]. There was a shopkeeper. He was the only Chinese person in the area. To be honest, he was my stepfather. He was my stepfather… but although he was my stepfather, I lived with him since I was a little baby.
Although, or perhaps because, his story is true, he has difficulty telling it. Semantically, he only gradually seems able to narrow down the relationship between him and the person in the story. Thus, it is in a series of modifications that the relation between himself and the person of the story is expressed: In the quotation above, the person goes from being a shopkeeper to a stepfather and from a stepfather to a stepfather, who is like a father to the teller of the story.
A lot is at stake for Suryono addressing the criminals – or gangsters, as they like to be called. He recounts the night the militia took away his stepfather and how he and his uncle finds him dead by the roadside the next day. No one dares to help them, so they have to bury him by the roadside “like a goat”. While he tells the story of his trauma, you can see the intense emotion within him, showing as ticks and strange facial expressions. He is giving voice to the story seen from the perspective of the victims, but at the same time, he is living in a culture and discourse governed by the perpetrators. A recurrent motif driving the story onward is the idea of truth. Twice he proclaims “truth” in order to continue: “a true story” and “to be honest, he was my stepfather”. A moment later, he does it a third time:
Then all the communist families were exiled [laughing frantically]. We were dumped in a shantytown at the edge of the jungle. That’s why, to be honest, I’ve never been to school. I had to teach myself to read and write. Why should I hide this from you? We should get to know each other, right?
The trauma inflicted upon him by the likes of Anwar Congo needs to be voiced, but at the same time, it is difficult for him to do because the general discourse is so one-sided in favour of the perpetrators. While on the one hand, he tells the story; on the other hand, he tries to diminish its importance so as not to offend. He assures them that it is not meant as a critique, but again, as he modifies what he is saying, he gets closer to the truth:
I promise I’m not criticizing what we’re doing. It is only input for the film. I promise I’m not criticizing you.
The repetition’s shift from a collective project (we) to something they are responsible for (you) marks both a distancing and a distance to Anwar Congo and his friends. In that sense, Suryono is showing critique while stating that he is not criticizing.
Of course, Anwar Congo and his friends quickly discard the story: It would not work on film, it would take days to film, or the scenes have already been chosen. The excuses are many and fall promptly. They have no interest in giving voice to the victims in the film they are making. On the contrary, by brushing aside the story of Suryono, they are inflicting a second wound on him. His attempt to confront the perpetrators and thus inscribe a sense of meaning or even justice fails miserably. Left is only to play the role the perpetrators have cast him for: As a victim at their hand and mercy.
As he sits there – tied up, with a machete at his neck – the anguish on his face is visible and his despair likewise. The boundaries between that night many years ago, when his stepfather was taken away, and this day have blurred. Father and son, past and present, reality and fiction are but the same. The boundaries between performing trauma and real trauma have seized to exist.