"Missing Victims" of the 1965-66 Violence in Indonesia

Representing Impunity On-screen in The Act of Killing

Author: Vannessa Hearman | University of Sydney


My first viewing of The Act of Killing (TAOK) led me to believe that the film suffered by neglecting the voices and experiences of victims of the violence. The 1965-66 killings claimed some half a million lives. Despite the number of victims and the survivors of imprisonment throughout Indonesia who could have been interviewed, filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer et al. did not include them. It was as if the violence carried out by Anwar Congo, the film's chief protagonist, and his friends had no victims to speak of. The phantasmagorical aspects of TAOK and the reenactments of crimes through Anwar's acting in films ranging in genre from Westerns to romance might prevent viewers from understanding the magnitude of the crimes and the continuing impact of these crimes. Yet following a second viewing of the film and seeing again Anwar's neighbor Suryono's disclosure that he had lost a family member in the killings, I realized that through the relative absence of victims and the dominance of perpetrators, TAOK's greatest contribution to advocacy for the victims is in showing us a highly realistic picture of Indonesian society and the impunity of the perpetrators. In spite of the passing of the regime, the perpetrators' version continues to dominate the narrative about the September 30th Movement and its aftermath. The victims may be "missing," but the larger point the filmmakers make about impunity is thereby emphasized even more.

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