The Act of Killing
|The Act of Killing|
|Directed by||Joshua Oppenheimer|
|Produced by||Signe Byrge Sørensen|
|Music by||Elin Øyen Vister, Karsten Fundal|
|122 minutes (theatrical release)|
159 minutes (Director's cut)
The Act of Killing (Indonesian: Jagal, meaning "Butcher") is a 2012 documentary film about individuals who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–1966. The film is directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and co-directed by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian.
It is a Danish-British-Norwegian co-production, presented by Final Cut for Real in Denmark and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen. The executive producers were Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joram ten Brink, and Andre Singer. It is a Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) project of the University of Westminster.
The Act of Killing won the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. It also won best documentary at the 67th BAFTA awards. In accepting the award, Oppenheimer said that the United States and the United Kingdom have "collective responsibility" for "participating in and ignoring" the crimes, which was omitted from the video BAFTA posted online. This participation has been extensively documented by numerous professional historians, journalists and an international tribunal, and documents declassified in 2021 indicate that the UK was even more closely involved than previously thought. After a screening for US Congress members, Oppenheimer demanded that the US acknowledge its role in the killings.
The Indonesian government had responded negatively to the film. Its presidential spokesman on foreign affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, claimed that the film is misleading with respect to its portrayal of Indonesia.
The film was ranked 19th on a list of the best documentaries ever made in a 2015 poll by the British Film Institute. In 2016, it was named the 14th greatest film released since 2000 by a poll of critics published by the BBC.
The film focuses on the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–1966 in the present day. The genocide led to the killing of almost a million people, ostensibly for belonging to the local communist community. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the President of Indonesia, following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in 1965, the gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in Medan (North Sumatra) were promoted from selling black market movie theatre tickets to leading the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra. They also extorted money from the ethnic Chinese as the price for keeping their lives. Anwar is said to have personally killed 1000 people.
Today, Anwar is revered by the right wing of a paramilitary organization, Pemuda Pancasila, that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers who are openly involved in corruption, election rigging and clearing people from their land for developers.
Invited by Oppenheimer, Anwar recounts his experiences killing for the cameras, and makes scenes depicting their memories and feelings about the killings. The scenes are produced in the style of their favorite films: gangster, Western, and musical. Various aspects of Anwar and his friends' filmmaking process are shown, but as they dig into Anwar's personal experiences, the reenacted scenes begin to take over the narrative. Oppenheimer has called the result "a documentary of the imagination".
Some of Anwar's friends state that the killings were wrong, while others worry about the consequences of the story on their public image.
After Anwar plays a victim, he cannot continue. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, states that it was worse for the victims because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Anwar was only acting. Anwar then expresses doubts over whether or not he has sinned, tearfully saying he does not want to think about it. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, and retches repeatedly while describing how he had killed people during the genocide. The dancers from the film's theatrical poster are seen before the credits begin to roll.
In 2001, while conducting interviews for their 2003 film The Globalisation Tapes, Oppenheimer and Cynn began delving into the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–1966. After moving up the ranks of those involved with the killings, Oppenheimer's interviews led him to meet Anwar Congo in 2005. The film was shot mostly in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, between 2005 and 2011. After seeing an early preview of The Act of Killing, filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers.
Many of the people who worked on the film are not credited by name, instead appearing as "Anonymous," for fear of both legal and extrajudicial retribution for their participation.
The Act of Killing received widespread acclaim from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 95% approval rating with an average rating of 8.80/10 based on 156 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "Raw, terrifying, and painfully difficult to watch, The Act of Killing offers a haunting testament to the edifying, confrontational power of documentary cinema." On Metacritic, the film holds an average score of 91 out of 100, based on 33 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."
Nick Schager of The Village Voice called it a "masterpiece." Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges called the film "an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers" and wrote that "it is not the demonized, easily digestible caricature of a mass murderer that most disturbs us. It is the human being." Award-winning filmmaker Ruhi Hamid said: "It is the most extraordinary film I have ever seen. It actually turns around what we think of as documentaries. ...an extraordinary record of a horrendous part of Indonesian history."
In some quarters Oppenheimer has been accused of treating his subjects in bad faith. As far as their goal at the beginning was to glorify mass murder, Oppenheimer responds that could never have been his goal, therefore that side of them may have been betrayed. In an interview with The Village Voice, Oppenheimer said: "When I was entrusted by this community of survivors to film these justifications, to film these boastings, I was trying to expose and interrogate the nature of impunity. Boasting about killing was the right material to do that with because it is a symptom of impunity."
Australian National University Professor of Asian History and Politics Robert Cribb stated that the film lacks historical context. In reply, Oppenheimer said that "the film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced [yet] celebrated – in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves... It never pretends to be an exhaustive account of the events of 1965. It seeks to understand the impact of the killing and terror today, on individuals and institutions."
Bradley Simpson, historian at the University of Connecticut and director of the Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, states the "brilliant Oscar-nominated film" has prompted vigorous debate among Indonesians about the crimes and the need to hold responsible parties accountable, and suggests that it could have a similar effect in the United States, whose own role in the killings "has never officially been acknowledged, much less accounted for, though some of the relevant documents have been made available to the public."
The primary subjects in the film, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, have seen the film and neither feels deceived, according to Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer says that upon watching the film Anwar Congo "started to cry...Tearfully, he told me: 'This is the film I expected. It's an honest film, a true film.' He said he was profoundly moved and will always remain loyal to it." Oppenheimer went on to say that in the call with Congo he also became down on himself saying "There is nothing left for me to do in life but to die". Oppenheimer seeing Congo so moved and almost ashamed for what he had done, said this to him. "You're only 70 years old, Anwar. You might live another 25 years. Whatever good you do in those years is not undermined by the awful things in your past." He felt it may have been cliche, but he felt it was honest and all he could manage to say to Congo. A subsequent interview on Al Jazeera's program 101 East revealed that Anwar had misgivings about the film and the negative reaction to it in Indonesia, which was causing problems for him. He confided these concerns directly to Oppenheimer in an apparent Skype conversation displayed within the program.
Top ten lists
The Act of Killing has been named as one of the best films of 2013 by various critics:
- 1st – Sight & Sound
- 1st – The Guardian
- 1st – LA Weekly
- 1st – Nick Schager, The A.V. Club
- 2nd – Mark Kermode, The Observer
- 3rd – David Edelstein, New York
- 3rd – David Sexton, London Evening Standard
- 4th – Eric Kohn, Indiewire
- 4th – People Magazine
- 7th – Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
- 7th – A. A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
- 7th – David Chen, slashfilm.com
- 8th – Sam Adams, The A.V. Club
- 8th – Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
- 8th – Richard Corliss, Time
- 10th – Time Out London
- 10th – Devindra Hardawar, slashfilm.com
The Act of Killing was ranked 19th among all documentaries ever made in a 2015 poll by the British Film Institute, as well as the 14th greatest film since 2000 in a 2016 critics' poll by BBC. It was ranked 16th in The Guardian's Best Films of the 21st Century list.
Awards and nominations
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In short, Western states were not innocent bystanders to unfolding domestic political events following the alleged coup, as so often claimed. On the contrary, starting almost immediately after October 1, the United States, the United Kingdom, and several of their allies set in motion a coordinated campaign to assist the Army in the political and physical destruction of the PKI and its affiliates, the removal of Sukarno and his closest associates from political power, their replacement by an Army elite led by Suharto, and the engineering of a seismic shift in Indonesia's foreign policy towards the West. They did this through backdoor political reassurances to Army leaders, a policy of official silence in the face of the mounting violence, a sophisticated international propaganda offensive, and the covert provision of material assistance to the Army and its allies. In all these ways, they helped to ensure that the campaign against the Left would continue unabated and its victims would ultimately number in the hundreds of thousands.
- Melvin, Jess (20 October 2017). "Telegrams confirm scale of US complicity in 1965 genocide". Indonesia at Melbourne. University of Melbourne. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
The new telegrams confirm the US actively encouraged and facilitated genocide in Indonesia to pursue its own political interests in the region, while propagating an explanation of the killings it knew to be untrue.
- Simpson, Bradley (2010). Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.–Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968. Stanford University Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-8047-7182-5.
Washington did everything in its power to encourage and facilitate the Army-led massacre of alleged PKI members, and U.S. officials worried only that the killing of the party's unarmed supporters might not go far enough, permitting Sukarno to return to power and frustrate the [Johnson] Administration's emerging plans for a post-Sukarno Indonesia. This was efficacious terror, an essential building block of the neoliberal policies that the West would attempt to impose on Indonesia after Sukarno's ouster.
- Bevins, Vincent (2020). The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. PublicAffairs. p. 157. ISBN 978-1541742406.
The United States was part and parcel of the operation at every stage, starting well before the killing started, until the last body dropped and the last political prisoner emerged from jail, decades later, tortured, scarred, and bewildered.
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- Official website
- The Act of Killing at IMDb
- The Act of Killing at Box Office Mojo
- The Act of Killing at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Act of Killing at Metacritic
- The Act of Killing on Facebook
- "The Act of Killing": New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres. Democracy Now! 19 July 2013.
- Obituary: Anwar Congo, the mass killer who re-enacted his crimes. BBC. 3 November 2019