Proud Genocide: “The Act of Killing” and the Birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald


Proud Genocide: “The Act of Killing” and the Birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald

“The Act of Killing”(2012), a documentary by Dane Joshua Oppenheimer, has earned high praise including a Best Documentary Nomination at this years Oscars. The documentary follows the leaders of the Indonesian paramilitary groups as they retell, and recreate, their roles in the mass killings of Indonesians tied to the PKI – the Indonesian Communist Party – from 1965-1966. Those deaths have been reported in the range of 500,000 to 2 million.

The documentary, lauded as “unprecedented in the history of cinema” by fellow documentarian Werner Herzog – who signed on as a producer after seeing an initial cut – gives full license to the self identified “gangsters” to say whatever they want. Shockingly, most openly celebrate the killings and still hold celebrity status within the country – with many either in the Government or closely associated with it. It is also clear throughout that the “gangsters” imitated and continue to imitate Western cinema and a form of Western cult of power. What is most shocking to those Western audiences is that they do so with bravado – completely skipping over the language and theatre that we usually associate with the powerful who at least try to pretend that their violence is liberatory or just. In this Oppenheimer not only critiques the violence in Indonesia, illustrating its webs and ties to the state, but also succeeds in holding up a mirror to “Western” audiences. Tying cinema to politics, (we literally follow one scene as lead “gangster” Anwar re enacts leaving the cinema to go round up and kill people), audiences watching the film should avoid the pitfall of stopping at shock or condemnation of Indonesian society, but instead further investigate that mirror.

In the Canadian context, the documentary is timely in that the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission has been throwing 199th birthday celebrations (#SirJam) and a Toronto City Councillor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, is calling for Union Station to be re named after Canada’s first Prime Minister. That Sir John A. Mcdonald actively sought out and encouraged policies of forced starvation of Onkwehon:we populations that lead to mass deaths, was a raging alcoholic, or that he instituted the racist Chinese head tax, accepted bribes and facilitated corruption, is all accepted historical fact. From the Globe and Mail, “Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the darkest days of the famine, even boasted that the indigenous population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation,” in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds.” Also, “rations had been deliberately withheld by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald, whose plan was to “starve unco-operative Indians onto reserves and into submission.” The Anwar’s of Oppenheimer’s “Act of Killing” differ from Macdonald only in their political position and in that Macdonald found policy that kept him farther from the blood and death than Anwar’s wire strangulation techniques. Macdonalds policies had the same effect though – killing thousands including many women and children.

The re enactments in Oppenheimer’s documentary, alongside the large paramilitary rallies, illustrate that violence is normalized socially. The few, mainly children, who can’t match social ritual to the meaning they are supposed to – crying at re enactments of mass killings instead of celebrating and laughing – are seen as outcasts and socially awkward. Oppenheimer’s documentary concludes as Anwar, who claims responsibility for over 1,000 deaths personally, is finally starting to question his role – “having I sinned?” What Anwar grapples with is not just his own identity, but his entire social reality. The re enactments bring memories that he cannot ignore and make him face a reality that cannot match the social reality demanded off him – a society that was constructed on and functions as a result of genocide. How is he a hero?

The legacy of Sir John A Macdonald is going through a similar process long after his death – alongside a “glasnost” era in Canadian politics where social movements like Idle No More are holding that same mirror up for Canadian society to see. The social reality of Canadian nationhood can’t withstand the reality of Sir John A. Macdonald. Documentaries like “Act of Killing” should serve as reminder of the social role we all play in normalizing state violence and genocide. Celebrating genocide allows that web to grow, allows that power to continue on from generation to generation and ensures that the effects of those policies live on.

Councillor Denzil Minnan Wong has responded to critiques of his renaming plans that he was not excusing Macdonald’s policies but simply honouring Macdonald’s “nation building.” Similar praise is giving to the “gangsters” to who built the modern Indonesian state in “The Act of Killing.” In both cases it was the nation building itself which was inexcusable. How we remember that is important.

@dylanxpowell /


4 responses to “Proud Genocide: “The Act of Killing” and the Birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald


  2. Thanks for drawing this parallel Dylan. It’s not mine (or ours at the Sir John A Bicentennial Conversation) to draw any conclusions, or interject our opinion; we’re here to encourage the conversation itself.

    We posted this to our Facebook page, in the hopes it will draw out some thoughts. If you find any similar blog postings, or contrary posts, please share them with us.

  3. Brilliant post, cherry-picking the historical narrative is probably the one of most prohibitive traits of the current administration. Why celebrate instead of critique? Discourse as opposed to disco

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