This film opened in New York City yesterday, so I read. I saw it a couple of months ago here in Paris. I’ve never seen a documentary like it (well, actually I have; see below). I was floored by it. It left me speechless. It’s about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, after the overthrow of Sukarno, when 500,000 to one million members and supporters of the Indonesian communist party—who were mainly ethnic Chinese—were massacred by the (US-backed) regime of General Suharto. Like any geopolitically-knowledgeable person I, of course, knew about the massacres and their scale but not the details, of how they were carried out or of their historical memory in Indonesia. After seeing the documentary, one knows all about it and then some. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent two years in Medan—the largest city in Sumatra—, interviewing and filming some of the perpetrators of the massacres there: local criminals and thugs who were recruited into the regime’s paramilitary youth organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The men, who are getting up there in age, regret nothing. Au contraire, they’re proud of what they did. They willingly—almost gleefully—talked of how they went about selecting the victims and then tortured and executed them (mainly by strangulation and demonstrating the method, which looks efficient indeed; a fine way to save on ammunition, and with no blood). They had great fun speaking about and playacting their deeds. No shame. And their reputations are well-known, not only locally but nationally. They’re tied in with government officials, even ministers, as the film shows, and with their actions in 1965-66 given positive recognition, recounted on television talk shows, etc. As one journalist observed (not in the film), it’s as if Hitler and his accomplices had survived and then gotten together fifty years later to act out their favorite scenes of the Holocaust before a movie camera, and were celebrated in Germany today. As for families of the victims, they maintain a low profile. No demands for justice or retribution, as they know what would likely happen to them were they to make an issue of it.
That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which absolutely has to be seen to be believed. For more, see this very good essay on the NYR Blog by Francine Prose, “Indonesia’s happy killers.” And for those who read French, there’s this lengthy and informative interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on the Allociné website. The film’s website is here.
Seeing the film reminded me of a similar one that I saw in 2006, ‘Massaker’, by German filmmaker Monika Borgmann and (her Lebanese husband) Lokman Slim, on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. The documentary consisted of interviews with six former militiamen in the Lebanese Forces, now in their 40s, who participated in the massacre. The men were interviewed separately, indoors, and from the torso down—i.e. no faces, as they feared retribution if their identities were known. Of the six, only one expressed even an inkling of regret for what he did. They all spoke in matter-of-fact detail and without remorse of the killing they perpetrated over those three days in September ’82—of babies, children, women, elderly people—, of women they gang-raped before murdering, and other such acts. Listening to their accents (in dialectical Arabic, which I won’t say I understood too well), it was clear they’re of modest social origins, probably from villages in Mount Lebanon. It was a bone-chilling documentary—and which hardly anyone saw (and no one I know), as it didn’t receive the same attention as ‘The Act of Killing’ presently is. A few of the Paris critics reacted negatively to the film, calling it voyeuristic and amoral. I ignored them. As with ‘The Act of Killing’, it is an important document, as it shows something about the behavior of human beings which, given the right conditions and circumstances, could happen anywhere.
UPDATE: TNR has an article (July 29th) on “The making of a surprise hit documentary about genocide: Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Act of Killing’.” And the July-August issue of Film Comment has an interview with Oppenheimer.
2nd UPDATE: Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, has an op-ed—well worth reading—in the NYT on “Indonesia and the act of forgetting.” (February 28, 2014)
3rd UPDATE: The NYT has an article on how the “‘Act of Killing’ film fails to stir Indonesia.” (March 2, 2014)