The memories came rushing back as I watched the 86th Academy Awards on Monday. There we were, 14 of us, at the University of Westminster’s auditorium in London in April last year, waiting to watch Copenhagen-based film director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film, which won the best documentary at Baftas 2014, lost out to 20 Feet from Stardom in the best documentary category at this year’s Oscars.
I had a sketchy idea about the film but as the 159-minute story unspooled on the screen that afternoon, I was stunned beyond words. The film is a searing and ghastly, to say the least, insight into the anti-communist massacres in 1960s Indonesia.
But even that’s not what makes the film so mind-numbing. It is actually the people who have acted in it: they are the real perpetrators of the crimes that happened in Indonesia at that time. So we watched murderers Anwar Congo (the protagonist) and his friends dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodelling cowboys even as they recounted their murderous exploits.
When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters to death squad leaders and they helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.
After the movie, we had a skype conversation with the director. How did he manage to get the perpetrators to act in the movie? It must have been real hard to get them to recount what they did, we asked him.
Much to our surprise, Oppenheimer said it was actually not very difficult to get Anwar, who he met for the first time in 2001, and his men to get on board because the former death squad leader felt that he had done nothing wrong! What is worse is that men responsible for such large-scale murders are living openly without fear of prosecution or reprisal, and indeed with the tacit support of current government officials.
Even though The Act of Killing did not win the coveted Oscar this year, the movie is a winner because the director has been successful in forcing the Indonesian government to acknowledge the massacres and also take the viewers to an uncomfortable place and inviting them to look at painful truths.