One of the most popular and enduring story formats is the battle between good and evil. It is a form that has for centuries been used to teach morality, the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of doing bad things. Ever since reading the Lord of the Rings at a very young age I have loved reading fantasy books, the majority of which show protagonists caught up in an age-long battle between forces that a purely good and purely evil and usually after a lot of struggle the forces of good prevail. The problem with this trope is that it has become so ingrained into our culture that it is used to explain events in the real world, which is incredibly dangerous, because calling a person evil immediately abrogates them of responsibility for their actions and prevents any investigation of a cause and a solution.
I mention this because I’ve just seen the documentary ‘The Act of Killing‘ which describes the events of the 1965-66 Indonesian killings, where over 1 million communise, trade unionists, left-wing sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were killed following the fall of the communist President Sukarno and military take-over. During this time, the military government organised, trained and encouraged local militias to do their dirty work, with the tacit blessing of western governments concerned about the rise of communism at the height of the cold war. The documentary is about two of the most notorious leaders of these killing gangs.
What makes this documentary unique is that it is the perpetrators who tell the story, and initially they tell it with pride. These men are now in their 70’s, still living in the communities that they terrorised 50 years previously, often in positions of power and influence but still with the gangster mentality of their youth. They happily show the film-makers the places where they committed these atrocities and explain in grisly detail what they did and why.
The real power of the documentary comes when the film-maker encourages these men to stage scenes, in whichever way they see fit, reenacting events from that time. This may sound terrible, as if the film-maker is giving the men the opportunity to glorify their past actions – and that was certainly how the perpetrators first saw the idea- but the act of filming these events, even though they were portraying it as a glorious thing, started to have an effect on the men, allowing them to become a spectator to the full horror of their actions, with differing reactions.
It is a powerful and moving film, one that I would recommend everybody should watch, not only because it tells the story of a horror that has remained hidden for 50 years, but because gives insight into the factors that led to this happening. And this is important, because it would be very easy to see these men as naturally evil people who took full advantage of the opportunity to do evil things, but these are the same old men that love their families, go shopping with their daughters or bounce grandchildren on their knee. The men believed what they did was right (at least initially), even though they knew (and admitted during the film) that contrary to what had been taught in Indonesia over the last 50 years, they were the bad guys and not the communists. It would also be easy to see the military who encouraged the killings as evil, but they believed they were protecting the country from the threat to freedom imposed by communism, encouraged by western governments. At the same time and just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the killings were in any way justified.
To me, what the film also showed was the danger of us as writers propagating the myth of good versus evil. By reinforcing these tropes we have allowed them to become shorthand to describe any conflict. They have become embedded into our news broadcasts, newspapers and political discourse. It turns everything into ‘them and us’, almost guaranteeing confrontation and denigrating the role of empathy and understanding to “fraternising with the enemy”. I believe it is our duty as writers to demonstrate in even the most straightforward stories that there are reasons and motivations behind every act no matter how immoral or abhorrent they may be, to show that the world isn’t black and white, that people aren’t black and white. Because if we can’t help teach people to view all sides of a situation and instead put it all down to evil, how can we expect humanity to have the ability to learn from what has happened, to ensure justice for the victims, or to prevent something like this from happening again?