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Indonesian night

In Indonesia, in less than a year, about a million people were murdered as a consequence of a military coup d'état

In a depraved parallel universe, veterans of the SS or of the death squads in Argentina grow old amid the admiration and respect of their neighbors, and appear on TV interview shows to public applause. They proudly accept invitations to act in films, where sometimes they play the role of torturer and sometimes, bedaubed with ketchup-like makeup, that of victim. The ambience of the TV interview runs from nostalgic to festive. The youthful torturer of the past, now a dried-up scrawny old man whose attire is of antiquated elegance, does a simulated strangling, then proceeds to dance a few steps of cha-cha-cha on a concrete floor that was once a pool of blood. Veterans of paramilitary organizations speak from platforms where members of the present government sit, to an audience of young recruits in black boots, rakishly angled berets, and camouflage uniforms. The veterans declare their double condition as patriots and gangsters. The local governor declares that they are valuable elements of society.

The documentary, The Act of Killing, which is hard to describe and at times hard to watch

The universe I have just described is situated in Indonesia, and it has been explored, camera in hand, by the young director Joshua Oppenheimer. The result is a documentary, The Act of Killing, which is hard to describe and at times hard to watch - but not because it wallows in the usual pornography of blood and guts. After Auschwitz came the Nuremberg trials; after the dirty war in Argentina, a few prosecutions; even the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia were followed by some rudimentary restitution, or at least a general awareness that something shamefully wrong had happened. In Indonesia, in less than a year, about a million people were murdered as a consequence of a military coup d'état. Having declared that they were against communism, the coup crew enjoyed the immediate and generous support of Western governments. But it was not only the soldiers who did the killing, and the victims were not only communists. Egged on by the mullahs, devout Muslims killed reputed atheists. On the island of Bali, where the Hindus are a majority, high priests called for human sacrifices to expiate years of sacrilege. In some areas Christians joined Muslims and Hindus in the persecution of possible communists. Union activists, teachers, freethinkers, artists and those who just seemed odd were liable to be macheted, their houses burned, their families exterminated. In Bali some 80,000 people were murdered, five percent of the population. Mass executions took place, often to the beautiful music of a gamelan ensemble, whose airy percussions swelled in volume to excite the killers and drown out the victims' cries.

The Chinese minority were perfect victims. One murderer in the film recalls how he went along the street, killing all the Chinese he met. His then girlfriend was Chinese: he took the opportunity to kill her father. But neither he nor his friends were soldiers, or particularly devout Muslims. They were petty criminals and punks, who liked American movies about gangsters and cowboys, and Elvis Presley musicals.

In far-flung parts of the world, violent American cinema induces dreams of heroic action. In the 1990s, in Yugoslavia and Chechnya, young killers with makeshift uniforms and patriotic causes killed innocent people while wearing the headband and dark aviator glasses of Rambo. In the 1960s in an Indonesian province, petty criminals who would normally not frighten a shopkeeper became instant warlords, putting into practice what they had seen in badly dubbed films projected on a bedsheet at an outdoor village cinema. One of them explains how they used to beat people to death; but that was messy so they switched to strangling with wire, or smothering with plastic bags. The nightmare is so intense, it goes on after the movie is finished. I emerge from the cinema, out a back door into a narrow street in Madrid, and I feel I am in the Indonesian night, a parallel universe where the perpetrators of a genocide appear as stars on reality shows.

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