The Act of Killing

PBS Premiere: Oct. 6, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Update

An Update from Joshua Oppenheimer

POV: What's happened with Anwar and the other perpetrators since the film's release?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The Act of Killing has helped catalyze a real sea change in how the genocide is perceived. Before the film, when the mainstream media spoke of the killings, it was in the most abstract terms, and usually as something heroic — and the fault of the victims. Now, it's discussed as a crime against humanity, as a genocide. This means perpetrators no longer boast publicly about their crimes.

I receive death threats from paramilitary leaders in Indonesia, and feel I cannot safely return to the country, which is a source of great sadness to me. After all, The Act of Killing is my love letter to Indonesia. Moreover, my anonymous Indonesian crew became a family to me, and I miss them very much. I would like to be able to visit them, to see their children grow up.

When Anwar saw the 159-min uncut version of The Act of Killing, he was very moved. He was tearful, and silent for a long time. Eventually he said, "Joshua, this film shows what it is like to be me." Although I would not say Anwar and I are friends, we remain close, and in frequent touch. After all, we have taken a long and painful journey together, one that has transformed both of us.

POV: How has the film been received in Indonesia?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The Act of Killing had the impact the survivors hoped for when they first encouraged me to film the perpetrators. It has been screened thousands of times in Indonesia, and is available for free online, where it has been viewed or downloaded millions of times. This has helped catalyze a transformation in how Indonesia understands its past. The media and public alike are now able, for the first time without fear, to investigate the genocide as a genocide — and to debate the links between the moral catastrophe of the killings and the moral catastrophe of a present-day regime built, and still presided over, by the killers.

In October 2012, Indonesia's most important news publication, Tempo Magazine, published a special double edition dedicated to The Act of Killing, including 75 pages of boastful perpetrators' testimony from across Indonesia. The magazine's editors gathered this testimony to show that the film could have been made anywhere in Indonesia, that there are thousands of feared perpetrators enjoying impunity around the country, and that the problems of corruption and gangsterism are systemic. This special edition broke a 47-year silence about the genocide in the mainstream media.

Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights issued its statement about the film: "If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognise the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than The Act of Killing. [It] is essential viewing for us all."

For a long time, the Indonesian government ignored The Act of Killing, hoping it would go away. When the film was nominated for an Academy Award®, the Indonesian president's spokesman acknowledged that the 1965 genocide was a crime against humanity, and that Indonesia needs reconciliation — but in its own time. While this was not an embrace of the film, it was wonderful, because it represents an about-face for the government: Until then, it had maintained that the killings were heroic and glorious.

A film cannot change a country's political landscape. Like the child in the Emperor's New Clothes, it can only create a space for the people who see it to discuss the nation's most painful and important problems without fear, and for the first time.

POV: Do you feel that The Act of Killing has raised the awareness of U.S. policy towards Indonesia at the time of the genocide within America?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes, I certainly hope so. And I am working with lawmakers to encourage the government to declassify the documents detailing U.S. involvement in the genocide. There is a scene in The Act of Killing in which I accused one of the perpetrators of committing war crimes, and he responds by accusing the West of hypocrisy, noting that the U.S. slaughtered the Native Americans. More to the point, the U.S. and the UK helped engineer the Indonesian genocide, and for decades enthusiastically supported the military dictatorship that came to power through the slaughter. Neither the UK nor the U.S. can have an ethical relationship with Indonesia (or so many other countries across the Global South with similar histories of U.S.-sponsored state terrorism), until we acknowledge the crimes of the past, and our collective role in supporting, participating in, and — ultimately — ignoring those crimes.

POV: Your latest documentary, The Look of Silence, recently premiered and is continuing its festival run. How does that film connect to The Act of Killing?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The film is a companion piece to The Act of Killing. The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies. The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality.

When I encountered the perpetrators' boasting back in 2003, I felt as though I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. I knew then that I would spend as many years of my life as it would take to address this situation — not least because I understood that, unlike the Holocaust, my government participated in the Indonesian genocide as it was taking place. I always knew I would make two films about the present-day legacy of the genocide. One would be an exposé of a present-day regime of fear. The Act of Killing, after all, is not a historical narrative. It is a film about history itself, about the lies victors tell to justify their actions, and the effects of those lies; about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt the present. The result is a film about escapism, fantasy — and guilt. Inevitably, it is a flamboyant film, a tropical Hieronymus Bosch, a fever dream.

But I knew there was another, equally urgent film to make, also about the present. The Act of Killing is haunted by the absent victims — the dead. Almost every painful passage culminates abruptly in a haunted and silent tableau, an empty, often ruined landscape, inhabited by a single lost, lonely figure. Time stops. There is a rupture in the film's point of view, an abrupt shift to silence, a commemoration of the dead, and the lives pointlessly destroyed. I knew that I would make another film, one where we step into those haunted spaces, and feel viscerally what it is like for the survivors forced to live there, forced to build lives under the watchful eyes of the men who murdered their loved ones, and remain powerful. That film is The Look of Silence.

POV: What are you working on next?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The Look of Silence is the last film I will make in Indonesia. I am exploring taking the methods I have developed in The Act of Killing — inviting people to stage themselves to make visible the stories we tell that make us who we are — into radically new contexts. I wouldn't expect a romantic comedy, but my next film is sure to be very different.

After The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing has played a major role in opening up dialogue about the 1965-66 genocide, both in Indonesia and internationally. Though the film has not been released theatrically in Indonesia (due to censorship and security concerns) it has been made available for free for Indonesians to download and, according to BRITDOC's PUMA Impact report for The Act of Killing, on International Human Rights Day in 2012, 50 public screenings of the film were held in 30 cities across the nation.At a later date, members of the Pancasila Youth, one of the main paramilitary groups involved in the genocide, even attended a peaceful screening and discussion of the film.

In October of 2012, Tempo, one of Indonesia's leading news magazines, published an unprecedented 75-page special on the 1965-66 killings, with testimony from the perpetrators. The issue sold out and was reprinted three times, and competing magazines quickly responded with their own specials on the killings. As of February 2013 more than 600 new press articles related to the genocide had been published in Indonesia. The film has also had impact globally: In China, The Act of Killing was screened at the Beijing International Film Festival, as well as for a village populated by Chinese-Indonesian refugees of the 1965 massacres and their descendants; the film was screened for the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.; and screenings in Kurdistan, Armenia, Jenin, Ramallah and the West Bank opened up dialogue around the genocide in Armenia that began in 1915.

Though the perpetrators have been neither convicted nor removed from power and a climate of intimidation still exists, Indonesia has seen an irreversible shift in public awareness and discussion of the genocide. According to Yosep Stanley Adi Prasetyo, an Indonesian national human rights commissioner, "Because of The Act of Killing, killers in Indonesia no longer boast about what they did, because they know the society will no longer accept it as heroic. This is a significant step in the fight against impunity and means perpetrators themselves can no longer lie to themselves about what they've done in the same way. It also means survivors no longer must listen to the intimidating boasting of the perpetrators who live around them."

"The Act of Killing." BRITDOC. BRITDOC Puma Impact Award. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.

"Armenian Genocide." United Human Rights Council. United Human Rights Council. Web 2 Oct. 2014.