WARNING: This Film Will Keep You Up at Night

Writer/director/producer Joshua Oppenheimer of 'An Act of Killing' poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo Credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Writer/director/producer Joshua Oppenheimer of ‘An Act of Killing’ poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo Credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images)

By Claudia Vandermade, Southeast Asia Co-Group Chair

“At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood. There was so much blood here. So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system. Can I show you?”

So speaks Anwar Congo, the enigmatic and terrifying character who comes to be the focus of the new film, The Act of Killing.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent over eight years creating what is being called a documentary, but after seeing the film, you may feel that we don’t yet have words for what he’s created.

John Oliver said of the film on the Daily Show, “I’ve thought about this every day since I saw it…and I think that’s probably going to continue for [a long time].”

The events began in 1965, and we learn the true story of a group of Indonesian civilians and wanna-be actors who take on roles to actually murder thousands of people, then enthusiastically work with Oppenheimer to take parts in a play-within-a–play to reenact the murders nearly fifty years later. They take us from rooftop murders to the slaughter of entire villages and into the heart of darkness.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent over eight years creating what is being called a documentary, but after seeing the film, you may feel that we don’t yet have words for what he’s created.

The government of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was overthrown in a 1965 coup. This led to the dictatorship of Suharto who immediately led a purge against the “communists” who were blamed for the coup. In truth, Suharto employed military and paramilitary groups to massacre an estimated 1 million citizens who he felt opposed his regime. The United States was eager for an anti-communist ally in the region and provided the Indonesian army with lists of PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia) leaders and supplied small arms labeled “medicines” to non-military killers.

Though Oppenheimer had started the project with a focus on survivors, he found that they continued to be fearful of a regime that to the present day intimidates critics. Indeed, Oppenheimer’s Indonesian film crew chose to be unnamed in the film credits.

As he attempted to locate and interview witnesses, the police and army would arrive and detain him. One survivor suggested that he approach the perpetrators who were well known and regarded as heroes throughout the country. It was at this point that he found the voice of the story, through the death squad leaders.

Happy to tell his story and nationally recognized for his part in the massacres, Anwar Congo begins his story on a rooftop in Indonesia dancing the cha cha cha. He swaggers toward the camera wearing a gangster style mustard-colored suit. He’s a confident man relaxed in this body dancing on the spot with too much blood. Congo plays his part and recounts murder after murder. He may be personally responsible for up to one thousand deaths. Though he struggles to devote more and more energy to his role, by the end he finds the guise disintegrating.

If art can change the world, The Act if Killing must stir us to demand that the Indonesian government initiate a process of truth, reconciliation and justice.

An extraordinary film, it is currently showing in select U.S. theaters. Be prepared for some sleepless nights.

Max White, AIUSA Country Specialist for Indonesia and Timor-Leste, contributed to this post.

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