Joshua Oppenheimer, director of a groundbreaking new documentary called The Act of Killing, screening in the New Zealand International Film Festival tomorrow, has spoken out about the Indonesian state murder cult of the 1960s.
The film is set in Indonesia, where, beginning in 1965, military and paramilitary forces slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the democratically elected government.
That military was backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades.
There has been no truth and reconciliation commission, nor have any of the murderers been brought to justice.
As the film reveals, Indonesia is a country where the killers are to this day celebrated as heroes by many. Oppenheimer spent more than eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and in The Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies in which the men love to watch — this includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and lavish musical numbers.
A key figure he follows is Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand people with his own hands and is now revered as a founding father of an active right-wing paramilitary organisation.
Film background In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, he gave some insights into the background of the film:
“The Act of Killing is, of course, the title of the film. It has a few—it has several meanings. Of course, it can refer to the commission of the crime of killing or commission of the deed of killing, which, it’s worth pointing out, is fundamentally a human act.
“We have really no other species, except for a couple of the higher primates, kill each other. Human beings kill each other, and we kill each other en masse and again and again and again through our history. So there’s a sense that the film looks at what does it mean for human beings to kill.
“What are the consequences of killing? Why do—why do we kill? What are the consequences on our societies for impunity around killing? How do we justify killing through the stories we tell?
“And then, in Medan, in the capital of North Sumatra, the largest city in Sumatra, the third-largest city in Indonesia, a city of about the size perhaps of Chicago, the army recruited in 1965 its civilian death squad members from the ranks of movie theater gangsters, preman bioskop in Indonesian.
“These men were gangsters. They were part of a mafia that was running all sorts of criminal rackets, protection rackets, smuggling, illegal logging, prostitution rings, and so forth, but they were using as their base of operations movie theaters.
“And they were selling movie theatre tickets on the black market as a kind of small side source of income. And they loved the movies. And because they were hanging out in them, so they developed a whole culture around the movies, whole kind of youth gang culture around the movies.”