The Act of Killing: Holding up a Dark Mirror to Society

The film largely follows one man, Anwar Congo, who, like all the other perpetrators that Oppenheimer interviewed, proudly boasts of the murders he committed, even demonstrating the methods he used to kill to the camera.  Towards the end, after participating in and viewing scenes from his past being re-enacted, Anwar appears to express remorse. Oppenheimer stated that the film holds up a ‘dark mirror, first to Anwar, and then to Indonesian society as a whole, and I hope that we . . . will see ourselves in that dark mirror to’.

Oppenheimer described how scenes were put together: the perpetrators provided ideas for how the scenes would be portrayed and Oppenheimer encouraged them to re-enact scenes in the style of different film genres.  These re-enactments, and the justifications the perpetrators gave for the killings, were important as they began to serve as ‘allegories for impunity, allegories for what happens when no one’s held to account’. In listening to these justifications, he realised that they may actually ‘be a sign that the person is too afraid to admit that what they were doing was wrong; it can be a symptom of remorse…or…a conscience’.

In addition, Adi, another perpetrator, states regularly in the film that the killings were wrong and that the government should apologise. By stating that the killings that he participated in were wrong, he is portraying himself as someone who is tough and can live with himself; he is ‘showing off his numbness’ and lack of conscience.

In response to a question regarding a scene where Adi is shown at the mall with his family, Oppenheimer explained that he wanted to show an image of consumer society that could be anywhere in the world, that relies on devastation to exist:

“We destroy everything we touch, and we’re almost helpless to do so. . . . We’re collectively responsible insofar as we depend on these kind of men everywhere in the world, to keep labour cheap, to keep our consumer society going. . . . We also should remember that the military dictatorship allows Western corporations to break strikes, to seize land – this is the West’s vision for Indonesia.”

An audience member pointed out that in the closing credits, many roles are credited as anonymous. Oppenheimer explained that while Indonesia has welcomed the film, it is still unsafe for the many of the Indonesians that worked on the film – including his co-director – to give their names. It is still very difficult for Indonesians to discuss the events from 1965-66, and Oppenheimer explained that his motivation stemmed from encountering survivors from this period who had been terrorised into silence. He felt that what he was witnessing was too similar to his own family’s experience of the Holocaust for him to not try to expose truth to other Indonesians.

From the beginning Oppenheimer was in contact with the organisation Tapol and many other Indonesian human rights organisations, who all contributed to the filmmaking process. He acknowledged that the government of Indonesia needs to apologise, before any changes to society can be made. This film has had a big impact on Indonesian society, and has ‘triggered an opening in Indonesia’, where there are discussions about what happened in the media. Investigations are being held and young people are becoming more interested in their history. There is also a movement to recover Indonesian culture, which was destroyed.

Oppenheimer expressed his hopes that Indonesia can go further by holding tribunals for the high-ranking men who ordered the killings, beginning the process of truth and reconciliation, along with developing grassroots political movements to reform the government, remove corruption, and work towards a fairer redistribution of wealth.

Both the regular and director’s cut of The Act of Killing are distributed by Dogwoof and continue to play throughout London and the UK. A list of upcoming screenings and Q&A’s can be found here.

Between the Lines was a three-day festival that took place at Rich Mix from 1 to 3 March. In a series of follow-up events we continue to explore the challenges facing documentary makers, investigative journalists and citizen reporters in the new media landscape.

This screening was in association with Picturehouse Docs and Tapol.