Gangsters Cha! Cha! Cha!

by Daniel Shea

2006 Digital Painting by Daniel Shea

A Marine’s Reaction to The Act of Killing – the movie

By Daniel Shea September 20th 2013

2012 documentary film, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. It is a Danish-British-Norwegian co-production, presented by Final Cut for Real in Denmark, produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen, co-directed by Anonymous and Christine Cynn, and executive produced by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joram ten Brink, and Andre Singer. It is a Docwest project of the University of Westminster.

See Wikipedia for Synopsis of film

I want to explore my reaction or feelings after seeing this film. I think this is an important, unique original and artistic film as it documents an oral history in visual scenes re-enacted by the Monsters of death themselves. It will – I am sure – enter the lexicon of film buffs, film school academics, critics of all kinds, struggling to define a language to categorize it into to some genre that does not yet exist.

Will it be a one of a kind film like the racist Jim Crow film “Birth of a Nation”? Who knows but anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and historians, from every field of the social sciences will construct and deconstruct studies and theories abundant enough to keep librarians employed for some time to come, as they attempt to explain the meaning one gleans from the film and the men in it who kill.

What makes monsters?

It is a good question, as a veteran of Viet Nam, a marine, a machine gunner, a trained killer, I have asked myself this very question, was I or am I a monster? How could I let myself become a man who could and would kill another human being? All the excuses fall flat, except I do find some solace in the fact that I can’t remember if I ever fired my weapon and if I did wouldn’t it have been because someone was firing at me or my platoon?. There is this one time when we entered a village set with booby traps, men died yet there is a black hole in my memory, redacted, in the twilight zone of another dimension. It is an amnesia that I welcome but if it ever reveals that I was a part of a massacre I am not sure I could live with myself.

If ever I remember and find my fears unwarranted still what right would I have to relinquish my guilt, I still participated in war I had no right to enter, if I wasn’t resisting the war then my very presence was a violation of Internationals Laws Against Wars of Aggression and a direct assault against the Vietnamese.

I was told we were at war against a people so evil, they would destroy our freedoms as they are doing to their own people who we have come to protect and liberate from the shackles of communism. “Communism” I didn’t even know what that “C” word even meant and I didn’t even take the time to find out. I knew nothing about the Vietnamese or their history, culture, language nor the geography I would trample beneath my jungle boots.

In the Act of Killing we hear the word “Communism” over and over, we must crush all the communists, we killed the communists and there are no communists here because we have killed them all.

The main interviewee and main character is Anwar Congo, a handsome older man, looks of African descent and reminds me of my Cuban brother-in-law and one of his friends Juan an Afro-Cuban now long deceased. Anwar like these Cubans in my life, hated the communists but on a day to day level I found them gentle loving men whose families were at the center of their experiences. They were kind to old ladies and would go out of their way to help anyone in distress. I would argue with them about the better side of the revolution as compared to the dictatorship of Batista, another man they had no love for. Our conversations were heated but always civil and we parted as friends at the end of every debate.

It is hard not like Anwar when you see his interaction with his nephews or grandchildren (I can’t remember which) as he gently admonishes one for injuring a duck. He instructs him to pet the duck gently and to say he is sorry to the duck. To tell the duck it was an accident he didn’t mean it any harm.

I am struck by the contradiction and wonder what caused him to suppress this nature of goodness that resides in him, it must have been there all along or where else would it have come from? Was Anwar making excuses for his own violence, does he mean to say all his killings were an accident? Accidents of history? of ignorance? of youthful ideological passions? I don’t think it entered his mind but it did mine.

From this film my mind dances from contradiction to contradiction like Anwar doing the Cha Cha after slaying a victim, I try to put into context how we as a nation, as people can suppress our humanity, dance with death, twisting truths into lies and shouting patriotic slogans to our youth to egg them on to war, to kill or die for those who beat the war drums and make profit from music of guns, bombs and screams of the innocent caught in the chaos.

How can we stand by and say nothing, are we not guilty if we do nothing to lift a finger to stop the machine of war that kills everything that stands in its path? Is this silence not monstrous and criminal?

This film triggers much anxiety in me, these stories of murders and the men who tell them fill me with anger and memories of my own violence. I do not hate them but I do not understand them. I have rejected violence in my life and thus hate has no place in my heart, but I find it hard to forgive them for their crimes. They do not ask for it and most continue to perpetrate forms of extortion, by their very presence which instills fear in the people they encounter.

Anwar Congo describes himself as a “gangster” which he and his comrades define as meaning “free men”. I think “free men?” free to kill? free to rape? Free to do whatever you want without consequence? This is the meaning of freedom?  Anwar goes on to demonstrate the efficiency of killing with wire, how it digs into the skin so the victim can’t get their fingers in between to resist, also less blood, less to clean up.

Anwar watches replays of their enactments, their making of a movie and his face is intense, he watches himself as though looking into a mirror of the past and he is not sure of himself. He and the director revisit the place where many of the killings take place and Anwar begins to convulse as if to vomit up the evil that has possessed him all these long years, such a guttural sound is coughed up, you feel as if he might vomit his inner demons, hounds from hell which will in turn devour him.

I have never seen anything like this film before nor been so frustrated to make sense of it all, because it does make sense of insanity and yet reason is elusive. It is a must see film and I hope it will help us all understand how a society, politics, and ideology can prompt such violence in human beings and thus help us find a way to prevent it.

These monsters who call themselves “Gangsters” must be held accountable for their crimes, that is our responsibility least we be monsters ourselves.


5 thoughts on “Gangsters Cha! Cha! Cha!

  1. Take action against impunity in Indonesia. This impunity that persists for the crimes depicted in the film, and it persists for later ones committed or overseen by Indonesia’s security forces from the illegal invasion and occupation of East Timor and to ongoing violations in West Papua. Human rights groups are supporting an appeal from survivors for the Indonesian government to acknowledge the truth about the 1965 crimes and to apologize and provide reparations to the victims and their families. Go to

  2. This is a really moving response to such an unsettling film, Daniel. I felt the same way right after watching the film. The frustration, anger, that can’t really be expressed in words. I’m an Indonesian Chinese by birth/ethnicity and I was raised in that atmosphere of fear which runs so deep that the whole country doesn’t even realise that it’s afraid, all the time. All these are familiar childhood themes: the impunity of these gangsters, the propaganda that painted them as heroes, the racism and extortion faced by ordinary ethnic Chinese who owns small businesses, all of it.

    Take comfort, though sir, although the day won’t come when these criminals and murderers would be brought to justice (not in their lifetimes), there is change, happening slowly. This film has been (and will be) watched by many Indonesians, especially the more educated younger generation. My hope rests in them, that perhaps someday they will take office, and rewrite school curriculums to expose the truth that’s been so long buried and erased from the current collective memory. Lest we forget!

  3. Pingback: Gangster Cha! Cha! Cha! : Sorge Magazine

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