By Claudia Vandermade, Amnesty USA Southeast Asia Co-Group Chair and Action Network Coordinator and Max White, Amnesty USA Country Specialist for Indonesia and Timor-Lesté
I had every possible appendage crossed as the Oscar for Best Documentary was announced on Sunday evening. The best documentary, film, makeup (just take a look – you’ll see what I mean) and more was The Act of Killing. The Academy chickened out and went with safe; handing the award to one of its own, lest they risk discomfort.
And The Act of Killing is very discomforting. Joshua Oppenheimer and his Indonesian crew originally hoped to tell the stories of those who survived the 1965-66 death squads let loose on the land to slaughter, torture, and rape union members, ethnic Chinese and whole villages who were all assumed to be members of the Communist Party.
However, when the Indonesian military found out about the film project…”they would take our equipment, they would take our tapes, they would detain us,” Oppenheimer said. “It was very difficult to get anything taped, and it was very frightening, especially for the survivors.”
It's as though I am in Nazi Germany 40 years after the end of the Holocaust, and it's still the Third Reich, the Nazis are still in power.
The story that emerged was of the old executioners themselves who were more than happy to brag about their actions and write and perform skits recreating the horror. How hard must it have been for a director to let a group of thugs start writing the script? How amazing to facilitate the increasingly bizarre scenes of dancing maidens and waterfalls and victims coming back to earth to thank their murders for killing them?
The reenactments of murders almost fifty years ago are an important part of the film; but more unsettling are the scenes of present-day Indonesia that bring home the point that nothing has changed. It is difficult to watch the same brand of thug shaking down a powerless Chinese shop owner or the frenzied rallies of the neo-fascist Pancasila Youth who hold the elder executioners in such reverence.
In describing the environment of today’s Indonesia, Oppenheimer says, “..it’s as though I am in Nazi Germany 40 years after the end of the Holocaust, and it’s still the Third Reich, the Nazis are still in power.”
In a recent correspondence, Joshua explained “…and tell your friends that we didn’t want to be complicit with the crimes we were documenting, so we explained to every market stall owner why we were there, and we paid them all back.”
The making of this film was an enormous juggling act.
Hollywood couldn’t bear what it saw in the film, but we must.