Ahead of the Academy Awards this Sunday we’re not overly concerned for Leo. We’re sure he’ll get there one day. Instead, we'd rather focus on the documentary section. We’re rooting for The Act of Killing. It doesn’t need saying that genocide is bad. The Armenian killings were horrific and the Great Purge wasn’t all that great after all. The only one to agree with the holocaust literally is Hitler. And his followers, yeah, but you get what I mean. These crimes didn’t end with the people killed. The generations that followed were all affected. We can’t begin to imagine what the survivors felt with their families destroyed, even after the stories they’ve told. But, talking about these horrors is like therapy. This is why it’s a huge shame some cases still go unnoticed. Let’s leave the holocaust for now and focus on Indonesia. The anti-communist purge in 1965 and 1966 left more than 500,000 people dead was. It’s goal was to, well, to get rid of communism. What a great theory! None of us probably need a history lesson on how communism in practice didn’t turn out to be a dreamy utopia. Of course the half a million people killed suggest the situation wasn't handled in a family friendly manner either. These killings are apparently skipped over in most Indonesian history books. This leaves little chance for anyone to learn of the events. How convenient.
The Act of Killing is here to change that. Writer for the Indonesian magazine Tempo, Ariel Heryanto says the documentary is politically the most important film about the country. Why? Because finally there is a debate, both amongst Indonesians and international audiences. The film by the Danish director Joshua Oppenheimer isn't just any old documentary. The genre expanding piece, while not showing real footage, doesn’t use professional actors. The people you see on the screen are the perpetrators and their immediate family. It’s the people that caused the harm that now replay the horrors. As he writes in The Guardian
, it was a matter of principle for the survivors not to reenact those events. Originally the idea had been to interview them. The survivors were to speak about living amongst the death squad leaders accountable for the events. It was a documentary about fear. Then the fear became too real. Once the army found out about the filming, survivors were threatened. The whole Indonesian crew of more than 60 people (including a co-director) is anonymous for that reason. But, none of them are quitters. Instead the survivors and human rights activists urged Oppenheimer to focus on the perpetrators.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they were happy to share. The stress here is on happy. “I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power,” Oppenheimer describes his experience. It was with pride the people spoke of the killings. Demonstrating the acts and showing the places, they boasted - as if what they did was in any way honourable. Suppose it's a tragedy in itself; that it was and still is seen as exactly that. Honourable. It's because the same forces behind the genocide still remain in power. The current president's late father-in-law is one of the key figures behind the genocide! This isn’t 21st century Germany regretting its past. Their actions haven’t publicly been shamed. No one has told them what they did was wrong.
This is why Oppenheimer’s work is so important. He's starting a discussion but he’s also offering therapy. By making the killers relive their past, he’s also making them think about the consequences. It’s not just about raising awareness among people. It’s also about giving the perpetrators an understanding of what their doing has caused. Of course the film isn’t a quick fix. Oppenheimer himself describes the film as anti-cathartic. The central character Anwar Congo - leader of a North Sumatra’s death squad - chokes as he admits to the wrongdoing. There’s no release, no happy ending. You won’t leave the cinema thinking, "oh great, so glad they finally realise they were dicks." It's real life. We can't delete bad memories or change the past. But, the healing can now begin. You know, like the whole AA first step of admitting to a problem. The Act of Killing is kinda like that first step. If you were to watch one film running for an Oscar this weekend, make this the one. All images are stills from the film, via official website