There is a scene in The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary which will screen next week at The Melbourne International Film Festival, in which a large number of Pancasila Youth militia are recreating one of the massacres that occurred in Indonesia in 1965. Oppenheimer invited a number of men responsible for the massacres of thousands of communists and ethnic Chinese across Indonesia to recreate their crimes for a movie camera, as if filming a Hollywood reenactment. In this scene, current members of Pancasila, invited to act as extras, roar with ferocity as they run towards villagers and act out mass murder. Village buildings burn and child extras cry with what is undoubtedly real fear.
A government minister and Pancasila member in attendance calls for everyone to pause, as he has clearly become uncomfortable with the violence so publicly on show. But soon it becomes apparent that his only discomfort is with being personally connected with the scene. His monologue takes a sharp turn from advising the crowd that such an event would not happen now, to advising that it would indeed occur in the present day. He exhorts viewers to observe the rage held by the Pancasila Youth participants, and to be fearful of it.
This moment aptly sums up the current Indonesian government’s ambivalent relationship with the events of 1965. No one has been brought to justice for the genocide, and, in fact, perpetrators boast regularly about their involvement in the killings. This is the situation that Oppenheimer set out to illuminate when he began his 10-year journey to make the film.
After attempts to make a film about the survivors became unsafe for participants, Oppenheimer switched focus to the perpetrators. The Act of Killing and its innovative method of allowing the perpetrators to replay their crimes has been received around the world with astonishment and plaudits. The word “masterpiece” has been tossed around liberally. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers immediately upon seeing a cut of the film, and Morris has written about the film’s purpose and achievements in Slate.
The film’s impact occurs on two levels; firstly, individual viewers are confronted by the portrayal of these unrepentant men and the graphic representations of how they view their historical actions. The key character is Anwar Congo, a beanpole of a man who seems the most troubled of all of the perpetrators, and who uses the increasingly bizarre recreations to attempt to deal with his past. The second level of impact is societal, relating to the more explicit conversation that needs to happen in Indonesia about the events of 1965. In this sense, the film acts as a catalyst, encouraging broader reflection once a screening is complete and viewers walk out into the sunshine.
I spoke to Oppenheimer, the director, via Skype from his hotel room in New York. He is travelling the United States, accompanying the release of the film across the country. He explained how the film's release unfolded in Indonesia, which has a history of banning books and films relating to human rights abuses — including the Australian film Balibo, banned by the Indonesian censors in 2009. Oppenheimer and his team were keen to avoid this happening with The Act of Killing, so they began in August 2012 with private screenings at the National Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta.
At the screenings were leading Indonesian journalists, news editors, producers, publishers, filmmakers, historians, writers, artists, educators and human rights advocates. Just prior to the screenings, the commission had released an 850-page report condemning the 1965 atrocities as a “gross human rights violation”. Afterwards, Indonesia’s largest news magazine, Tempo, ran a special issue entitled “Requiem for a Massacre”. They also, according to Oppenheimer, sent journalists around the country, looking for men like Congo to demonstrate his lack of exceptionality. Oppenheimer says this was an insight into why the film has had such an impact: “The media started producing in-depth reports about the genocide as a genocide.”
For Oppenheimer, the role of the film is much broader than illuminating the horrific acts of the specific subjects of his film. It is no less than an attempt to bring about deep and lasting change to a political system that is based on amnesia about its past. In this sense, he believes, many more of the Indonesian establishment are complicit, and continue to be, in supporting a continuing climate of “corruption and thuggery”. This, Oppenheimer hopes, is what the film can also help to highlight. The conversation growing around the film can allow people “to articulate problems about the present day … [it]gives them space to speak without fear.”
Since those August screenings, there have been more than 500 more screenings of the film around Indonesia. One of the film’s co-directors is an Indonesian national whose identity is protected as “Anonymous”. Anonymous is now the head of distribution in Indonesia for the film, which means he fields the many requests from people around the country for copies of the film for private screenings.
I also spoke to Anonymous; he too was optimistic about the impacts of the film. In his view, a conversation is beginning between people whose families come from both sides of the conflict. Children are asking questions of their parents. “The good thing is that victims' families no longer blame their parents for being communists,” he says, “but it’s still difficult for perpetrators’ kids to see their parents as mass murderers.” Mainly, though, “now they are talking”.
The positive response from eminent Indonesians and coverage such as the Tempo special issue, thus far, are why Oppenheimer believes the Indonesian government has not yet banned the film. He says his team encourages people to hold small-scale, invitation-only screenings, as too many public screenings could potentially force the hand of the censors (not to mention put the screeners’ safety at risk). Eventually, says Oppenheimer, the film will be made available in Indonesia to freely download and stream online. The rights to the film will be formally handed over to the Indonesian people, and they will be encouraged to exploit them by copying and spreading DVDs, for example.
Anonymous explains that when Indonesians see the film, they first talk about how shocked they are, and discuss their physical reaction to the film. Then, inevitably, their first question is, “What can we do?”
“There are so many options,” he says. “I always suggest to do the easiest, closest thing they can do. If they have affected families, talk to them. If they have friends they can trust, start to talk about this. Share the film. On our Facebook page, we provide some free books we suggest they download and read.”
The main hopes for the film, articulated by both Oppenheimer and Anonymous, are that it will assist in leading to a presidential apology and a truth and reconciliation process. There are already a number of petitions circulating that call for these actions. According to Oppenheimer, the National Commission of Human Rights reports that perpetrators no longer openly boast about their roles in the genocide.
“Not because they’ve had a collective awakening,” he says, “but because they know it’s no longer acceptable to boast about this.” Anonymous also hopes that the education curriculum and textbooks will be revised to incorporate the events, and that the genocide will become a remembered part of the country’s history. “If you know your history, you know who you are and where you will go,” he says. “It’s so hard for Indonesians to know their destination, as they don’t know what happened in the past.” He believes this change is slowly beginning to happen.
The Act of Killing screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 28th July and 3rd August. It goes on general release around Australia in early October.