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Publication Date : 12-03-2013
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer digs into the darker side of Indonesia's history in the hopes of identifying and embracing past mistakes
Those who have watched the 2012 feature-documentary The Act of Killing - or Jagal in its Indonesian title - usually express a range of emotions including horror, shock and anger.
However, there are also many who, after watching the movie, which depicts the killing of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) back in 1965, found themselves bursting with questions such as why the alleged killers featured in the movie seemed so willing - enthusiastic even - to describe their chilling deeds.
More questions surfaced when one of the characters, Sakhyan Asmara, said in September last year that he might sue the movie’s director.
The following month, Anwar Kongo, one of the movie’s lead actors, said in an interview that he did act in a movie by the same director as The Act of Killing, but it had been a fictional movie called Arsan dan Aminah.
In the movie’s credits, plenty of “Anonymous” figures were involved, including one that was especially credited as having a vital producing and co-directing role.
The questions tickle and tease, and it is hard to imagine anyone in a more fitting position to answer them than The Act of Killing’s director himself, Joshua Oppenheimer.
“I did not trick them while they were making another movie. There were no other movies and they knew that from the beginning,” Oppenheimer said, in fluent Indonesian, during a recent interview conducted via the Internet.
He was referring to The Act of Killing’s actors, who, in the movie, demonstrated how they carried out the killings, at times seemingly without remorse.
The American said that Anwar and Herman - another character featured in the movie - actually signed a statement saying that they knew they were only making a film for him and were never making one of their own.
Oppenheimer, who first came to Indonesia in 2001, added that he was “not concerned” about the possibility of being sued by the actors.
“[Sakhyan] actually signed a release to be in the film, knowing how the film could be used. He said I claimed it was for academic purposes. Indeed it was an academic research project when I filmed it. I was senior researcher on that UK genocide and genre project […] so I think he was trying to claim that if it was academic it was not made for public consumption but that’s not true. I think all academic research is made for public consumption,” Oppenheimer said.
Indonesia’s communism purge started to become a subject of interest when he was invited to help make The Globalisation Tapes, which depicts the plight of Indonesia’s palm oil plantation workers, by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers.
The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) launched a report last year reiterating that an estimated 500,000 to 1 million alleged supporters of PKI Party became victims of extra judicial killings from 1965-1970.
Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) had submitted a lengthy report on the purge, which it said constituted a gross human rights violation. However, the Attorney General’s Office returned the report and Attorney General Basrief Arief said in November last year that the gathered evidence was insufficient to justify a legal investigation.
Yet, in the purge told in The Act of Killing, there was hardly any shortage of evidence in the form of recollections coming straight from the alleged killer’s mouths. Several of its scenes even involve the characters demonstrating their deadly methods in details.
Oppenheimer said that while he disagrees with the aim of putting every killer in jail, because, according to him, the task is hardly possible and would likely lead to a civil war, he believes that Indonesia still has to open up its wounds, embrace its mistakes, and move on in order to function well as a democracy.
“I am not God. I don’t deliver justice with this film. I think we need to look at what we did honestly and make the decision that it is wrong collectively,” Oppenheimer said, underlining the need to embrace one’s mistakes.
As a matter of fact, the man whose several family members fell victim to the holocaust said that it was precisely “kindness” and “openness” that helped him gain the actors’ trust. It also helped that the main actor, Anwar, was a fan of Hollywood flicks.
In various interviews, however, Anwar has demonstrated anxiety regarding the situation surrounding him after the movie was released.
“Of course I am sorry that the film frightened Anwar but I think that has not been his main experience. I think he was actually very moved by the film [...] and I can’t say it has been an easy experience,” Oppenheimer responded when asked how he felt about Anwar’s discomfort.
He said he still maintained contact with Anwar and the two communicated quite regularly. “We have been through a deep and long journey together […] and we care about each other.”
The Act Of Killing took around eight years to make and the process was emotionally demanding, to say the least.
But Oppenheimer’s efforts are paying off. Aside from intriguing many Indonesians who were formerly in the dark about the purge, it has also won considerable recognition worldwide.
The film recently bagged two awards at Berlinale and he is even considering the Academy Awards, for reasons other than fame: “Frankly I don’t care about winning an Oscar but the reason we care is that it forces the government to take it seriously.”
Oppenheimer is yet to be done with Indonesia or the mass killings. He is currently in the process of finishing his next movie, which still revolves around the purge but this time more from the victim’s point of view.
“I am beginning to edit [the movie] and it is about the perspective of a family of survivors who have to live alongside the perpetrators,” he said.
The movie, which is set to be released this year, will add to Oppenheimer’s list of works involving dark, and often dangerous issues, which some are reluctant to even discuss, let alone being involved in the film.
One of his works, These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home, for example, required him to infiltrate a militia group. It seems that the man’s passion towards subjects involving repression and violence overshadows any sort of concern for his own safety.
“If there’s danger, I probably suppress my awareness of it. I continue because these are issues that we must deal with. As human beings, if we wish to lead lives worth living, we have no choice,” Oppenheimer said.