Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’ is a bone-chilling documentary-expose of mass murder and impunity in Indonesia.
Starring leading members of the death squads who purged over half a million opponents of President Suharto in the mid-1960s, it attempts to understand the open-ended legacy of these unpunished atrocities.
Oppenheimer not only interviews the executioners-come-national-heroes, but also gets them to stage dramatic reconstructions of their (non-)crimes. As the director explains, staging the re-enactment of murder allowed him to fully examine its harrowing reality:
“For me, the issue – when I came across this – was not about providing a historical primer or adult education about a genocide that in fact nobody cares about but rather, more importantly, here I was in this place where the perpetrators were still in power. And I saw this as a way of understanding what are the stories that we tell to justify our actions, how we create our reality through storytelling, how we’re all much closer to perpetrators than we like to think.”
Given Oppenheimer’s family history, the production felt particularly pertinent: “My father’s parents both come from Germany – one from Frankfurt, one from Berlin. My stepmother’s parents were from Vienna. They escaped the Holocaust. People in the family didn’t. A lot of my stepmother’s family in particular was killed. I think that I grew up very much with the sense that the aim of all politics, the aim of all morality, and perhaps even the aim of all of culture is to prevent these things from ever happening again. And the mantra or the slogan of ‘never again’ can far too easily be reduced to ‘never again to us’.”
Whilst the film has certainly created a stir in Indonesia, there has been no sea change, no truth and reconciliation commissions, no tribunal – the word ‘Anonymous’ appears both frequently (and ominously) in the credits.
On one hand, perhaps the fleeting moments of self-realisation and remorse experienced by the perpetrators are something.
On the other, maybe this remorse wasn’t genuine, but just another performance for the camera.
Subverting bans to get it seen in Indonesia
Cineuropa reports: “Since the Indonesian government typically bans films dealing with human rights violations, a traditional theatrical distribution of the film has not been possible, according to US distributor Drafthouse Films, so local activists and ordinary citizens have organised more than 500 screenings of the film in 95 cities.
“Drafthouse has now arranged with global media company VICE, digital platform VHX, Danish production company Final Cut for Real and the Anonymous crew behind the film that it can be seen via this website geo-blocked exclusively for Indonesians, from the September 30 anniversary of the 1965-1966 genocide.”