Indonesian politics and history isn’t taught or studied nearly as much as our significantly less immediate neighbours of China and America. Indonesia is geographically adjacent to us and has a population of 238 million people, as well as a government that celebrates and endorses the mass murdering of more than half a million people that occurred between 1965 and 1966. The killings were done face to face. Anyone who was suspected of being a ‘communist’ was shot, beheaded, strangled or had their throat slit. The killings were rarely taught, and on the one occasion they were, mass protest resulted in all textbooks containing references to them being burnt. Book burnings, mass murder, a government celebrating it – and it’s as close to Darwin as Adelaide.
Joshua Oppenheimer spent eight years in Indonesia, originally travelling there to make a film about the survivors of this massacre. He was quickly informed that he would have better luck talking to the killers, as they would not be afraid to reveal the full extent of their stories. When asked what drew him to the film, his response was straight and provoking: he’d found a place where “the killers had won.” Even more, “this was the underbelly of our own reality. This is the kind of place where everything we buy is manufactured. It’s our situation.” The stark difference between the Indonesian genocide and others in the past is that there hasn’t been a moral victory, or even a historical victory for survivors, and no recent genocide has occurred so close to our shores. The victims (the few who survived) live in fear, as those who slaughtered their families are praised and laughed with both by the government and within society.
At the centre of Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, is an examination of the way we lie to ourselves, and the simultaneous interplay that occurs within our own lives between reality and cognitive construction.
The moral psychology of the killers is under continual examination throughout Oppenheimer’s work. Do these men feel they have done wrong, or more important, have they been able to rid themselves of the ability to feel wrong? I posed a similar question to Oppenheimer – was Anwar Congo (the most frequently featured gangster throughout the film) repentant after the frequent and intense confrontations he had been met with over the course of the documentary? “I don’t think he’s repentant – consciously” Oppenheimer replied, “I think he feels regret, but that’s different to being able to consciously feel remorse.”
Oppenheimer tolerates and is understanding of the killers he speaks to, giving them a free space to discuss their actions. However, his ultimate concern is producing the truth. “The thing I didn’t like was when they wanted to lie and they wanted me to lie.” His close relationship with Anwar can be understood through this lens: despite the terrible atrocities he has committed, Anwar is one of the few killers who completely expose their own crimes to Oppenheimer. Anwar is also one of the few killers to see the final work, with Oppenheimer reflecting: “at the end of the film Anwar cried and told me ‘this is the film I knew I was making – it is honest, and I will be loyal to the film, and I will stand by the film’.”
The film’s most profound scene occurs during Anwar’s viewing of The Act of Killing, demonstrating Oppenheimer’s thesis. His immediate response is to call his grandchildren in to watch the film. They promptly leave, bored and unable to comprehend the violence they witness, and in turn, Anwar is left alone. He stares at the camera, manned by Oppenheimer, and informs him that he understands how his victims feel – now that he has played them in the film. Oppenheimer’s response brings Anwar to tears. “You knew it was a film,” he says, “they knew they were going to die.” The scenes of the killers coming to realise the reality of their crimes are the most palpable in the film, cutting to the core of the degree to which humans can lie to themselves, whilst simultaneously revealing the limits to which they cannot.
Joshua Oppenheimer is a rare moviemaker, able to combine the subtle art of cinema, with a probing and humane form of journalism with powerful philosophical insights that underpin the entire work. When asked about the reaction Indonesian politicians would have to the film, Oppenheimer makes himself starkly clear. “I assume the high level politicians would feel betrayed by the film – and I hope they would – otherwise I wouldn’t have done my job.”
Oppenheimer cites Claude Lanzmann’s magnum opus, Shoah, as one of his greatest inspirations. The film demarcated itself from other films on the Holocaust due to its focus on remembrance, rather than re-enacting. “It’s important to look back,” Oppenheimer reflects, and really, it’s what’s at the centre of his style. In the process of finishing up the sister film to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, – Oppenheimer has been focusing on fulfilling his original objective: making a film about the survivors. The film won’t share the same tone, however, with Oppenheimer sombrely expressing that “there’s no happy ending. The end is ‘look at everything that has been destroyed’.” Ironically, it’s The Act of Killing that has a happy ending, with its central killer, Anwar, developing a sense of regret.
Oppenheimer has spent eight years investigating, filming, and examining the situation in Indonesia. Despite this, he hasn’t gotten used to, or adapted to the horror that he has encountered. “Nothing can restore everything that was destroyed – that’s lost. The trauma, the silence, the lives lost to fear, and those too afraid to tell their stories. That’s simply lost. Lost time.”
At the core of the situation in Indonesia is the simple fact that nothing is going to change, and Oppenheimer’s film bleakly acknowledges this. When you put on clothes in the morning, you aren’t confronted with the stories of the families that made them, and the millions murdered by those that keep them afraid. Oppenheimer reflects on this scenario: “you depend, every day, on people like Anwar to keep the men who make these products afraid.” In many ways, Oppenheimer’s most profound insight comes from the subtle and unstated commentary that, as much as we’d like to twist our consciousness and lie to ourselves, as much as we’d like to imagine that we’re closer to the survivors, in reality, we are much, much closer to the people who were integral in their slaughter. At the core of the film is an examination of the way we lie to ourselves. Despite the confronting and challenging nature of the film, humanity won’t accept a truth that places them as close to the killers as the stark reality of Oppenheimer’s movie, and that’s the most painful thing to take away from it all.
The Act of Killing is coming to Australian screens soon.
See Honi‘s full coverage of the Sydney Film Festival 2013: