'Act of Killing': In small screenings, by word of mouth, Indonesians learn of dark past
The new film 'The Act of Killing' recounts the slaughter in Indonesia of up to 2 million people following an attempted coup in 1965. Filmmakers are showing it in small venues to dodge potential censorship.
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So far, the showings have been free of protest and violence, but a local newspaper was attacked recently for publishing a story about the documentary. Director Joshua Oppenheimer said fears that screenings could be stopped or even attacked signal that “Indonesia has not made a complete transition to democracy.”Skip to next paragraph
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An unprecedented documentary
“The Act of Killing” is the first film to document the events of 1965 through the eyes of the killers. Historians and political scientists have called it unprecedented for allowing the murderers to implicate themselves without shame. In the opening scene, for instance, the main character, Anwar Congo, demonstrates with pride how he killed his victims.
Indonesia’s official human rights body, Komnas HAM, which released a detailed report in July providing evidence of human rights abuses, issued a statement on the film, saying Indonesians must recognize the “terror and repression” on which the country was built to ensure its reputation as a vibrant democracy. The attorney general’s office, however, has rejected its request to conduct an official investigation into those alleged crimes.
The challenges facing the film underscore the divide in a country often hailed as a model for those transitioning to democracy from authoritarianism.
“The main message of the film is you have perpetrators who remain the winners of history,” says Ariel Heryanto, a professor of Indonesian studies at Australian National University. And that makes it difficult for the country to address past abuses, he says.
Mr. Oppenheimer believes people who are old enough to remember Suharto’s New Order propaganda are most powerfully moved by the film, since it exposes the obstacles that remain to democratic expression.
A window on the unknown
For the youths who have been watching the film en masse, it is seen as a window into a history they never knew. Like Pernando, many feel they’ve been cheated and lied to.
“I feel like I was robbed of something,” says Eve, who does not want to give her last name out of fear she might face a backlash.
Many of the students at the UI discussion said they liked that the film provided a competing view to history.
“Now we know the facts of both sides, not just one,” says Tyas Wardhani. Some students sympathize with Anwar, the main perpetrator, whom they see as deeply conflicted. Others say the story left them feeling the need for justice.
“I felt angry, queasy, and scared all at once because I didn’t know history was like this,” says Fildzah Izzati, a recent graduate. “We cannot tolerate a nation of butchers.”
Oppenheimer says he hopes to build public debate through the screenings and garner endorsements from prominent people. Then, if the government does ban the film, it becomes a test of Indonesia’s commitment to free expression.
Pirous, meanwhile, has been pushing for more visibility.
“If people get angry or don’t agree with the film, it’s part of the experience,” he says. “The film is about our history, so it’s important to see the public reaction. If we’re afraid or not, we have to try to expose this.”