If a single picture can tell you what a 1000 words perhaps can, a documentary film has the power to shake a viewer into wakefulness. It has the ability to dig deep into one’s conscience, and can be a far, far more effective tool than a feature movie when it comes to driving home a point or disturbing a society.
In an earlier column, I wrote about Rithy Panh’s documentary, The Missing Picture, and how it explores the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. This is one of the five Oscar nominees in the foreign language category.
In a year that has seen politically charged films, The Act of Killing, is one of the five documentary features vying for an Oscar. While the Khmer Rouge mass murders have been well publicised, and the 45 million deaths from famine in China – a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s misadventure called the Great Leap Forward – have also been written about in several books, hardly anything is known about the genocide in Indonesia. It is this forgotten mass murder that has been documented in The Act of Killing.
It is estimated that about 5,00,000 to three million men and women “branded” as Communists were butchered in Indonesia between 1965 and 1967. Till now, this gruesome episode remained out of history texts, and, therefore, out of world view. The Act of Killing, helmed by America’s Joshua Oppenheimer, details this awfully disturbing chapter in Indonesian history – when the country was ruled by President Suharto.
Much of what happened is still clouded in propaganda and misinformation. However, what is fairly well known is that there was a coup attempt in September 1965 in which six Indonesian generals died. The army, suspecting the hand of the Communist Party of Indonesia, began a systematic programme of annihilation in which millions lost their lives. Though the army was the main culprit, some social and religious organisations were also guilty of having perpetrated the heinous crime. And yes, America’s CIA – paranoid about Communism – is said to have helped the army.
The best part of the documentary is that it stays clear of getting bogged down in details. Instead, it chooses to highlight the impunity enjoyed by some of the guilty men – who almost half a century later have not been punished. In fact, some of them have been so blatantly unrepentant that they brag about their roles in the bloody carnage. What is more, even 15 years after the fall of the Suharto regime, the massacre remains firmly under wraps.
And this is where Oppenheimer’s work is eminently significant. By unearthing a sordid chapter through a movie, he will hopefully draw the attention of the world, and, who knows, perhaps, help getting the villains punished.
US director Joshua Oppenheimer poses with the award for a documentary for the film The Act Of Killing at the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Opera House in London on February 16, 2014. (AFP Photo)