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The Act of Killing: How The Film Everybody's Talking About Might Change Indonesia Forever

It's an astonishing, brutal and often uncomfortably funny film, which follows four Indonesian men who murdered of thousands in a bloody, military-led purge of communists which the country is still trying to cover up from outsiders almost 50 years later.

Optimism is by far the prevailing emotion at Doc/Fest, Sheffield’s annual gathering of factual filmmakers. For some it’s the certainty that some visionary money man will see some potential in their next pitch, and that next year the resultant opus will return to the festival to hoover up prizes. For Joshua Oppenheimer, that all happened two years ago. His film, The Act of Killing, which goes on general release today, was funded through a meeting at Doc/Fest. It’s an astonishing, brutal and often uncomfortably funny film, which follows four Indonesian men who murdered of thousands in a bloody, military-led purge of communists which the country is still trying to cover up from outsiders almost 50 years later.

It returned to the festival this year to packed screenings and stunned audiences, winning both the audience and jury awards. It’s been awarded five stars by The Guardian, and people are already talking about Academy Awards. But for Oppenheimer, this year’s optimism comes as a hope that the film might bring change to Indonesia, and maybe even change the way we think about such atrocities on a human level.

He initially set out to make a film about the survivors of the genocide, but whenever he started filming with the families the government would shut them down. Eventually one of the survivors came up with an alternative way to tell the story.

Introducing the premiere of the Director’s Cut at Doc/Fest, Oppenheimer said, “One of the survivors said ”Josh, you’ve heard in the village where we live the perpetrators speak quite openly about what they’ve done. They boast to us, the relatives of their victims about how they’ve killed. Film them."

He went on to film every surviving perpetrator he could find, more than 40 in total, before finding Anwar, the films charismatic star who personally killed around a thousand people, usually by strangling them with wire. Oppenheimer was astonished at how easy it was.

“Everybody I met within ten minutes was starting to tell me about how they killed, would say ”Now I must take you to the place where I killed and show you how I went about it!""

Oppenheimer took full advantage of Anwar’s brutal honesty, and invited him to recreate his murders in any way he wished as part of the film. Anwar, a cinema buff who made his money scalping movie tickets, chose to reenact them in the style of Hollywood.

These reenactments include a moodily lit, noir-esque torture scene filmed in a disused public toilet and a platoon esque village burning action sequence with dozens of locals roped in as extras. And all of this is before you get to the musical number, where a chorus line - including one of the death squad leaders dressed in drag - sing born free as the butchers are given medals by the ghosts of their victims.

“I was very open” says Oppenheimer “I said look, you have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it. I want to understand what it means to you and to your society, you want to show me what you’ve done. Show me what you’ve done in whatever way you wish. I will film the process and we will bring these things together and create perhaps a new form of documentary.”

Perhaps most shocking is the frankness with which Anwar and his friends discuss the atrocities they committed, matter of factly demonstrating how this method of garotting was less messy than that. And the crimes aren’t all historical. Paramilitaries allow themselves to be filmed extorting money from Chinese shopkeepers, and politicians talk openly about engaging in corruption, violence and illegal gambling.

One chilling scene involves Anwar being congratulated by a TV chat show host for having invented a much more “efficient” method of exterminating communists. In the audience are uniformed members of Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary group of which Anwar was a member, and which still holds much power in Indonesia.

For nearly 50 years, the Indonesian people, under threat of violence from the various paramilitary groups have been told the killings of 1965 were necessary. That cruel, evil communists had tried to take over the country and that the murder of up to a million suspected communists, sympathisers, union members and ethnic Chinese was not only essential to defend the nation’s liberty and religious freedom, but the morally correct thing to do.

“Most perpetrators either deny what they’ve done or apologise for it.” says Oppenheimer "The reason for that is that by the time we get to them and identify them as perpetrators, they’ve lost.

"And here we have what appears to be the exeption to the rule, which is that these men haven’t been overthrown. They won and they’ve built a whole society based on what they’ve done. Based on the elimination of any progressive left and based on mythologising it as something heroic.

“Only gradually did I come to understand that [Anwar’s] relentless honesty was in fact his way of trying to deal with his pain. The boasting may not betray a lack of remorse or lack of conscience at all, but may be a desperate effort to convince himself that what he did was right. Let’s say I had killed, or you had killed and still had the opportunity to justify what you had done to the world. You would, because the other choice is that you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and see a murderer.”

The Act of Killing has been screened about 500 times in 95 cities in Indonesia, but fears of the government criminalising its exhibition and paramilitary groups attacking screenings have meant they have mostly been underground and by invitation only. Still, Oppenheimer is upbeat about the effect the film is having in the country. After 47 years of the events of 1965 literally being erased from Indonesian history books, the country’s media are beginning to plunge into investigative reporting into the genocide. Tempo, the country’s biggest news magazine, ran a special issue entitled Requiem for a Massacre, which contained details of open graves, bodies dumped in rivers and thrown down ravines, many reported for the first time.

According to Oppenheimer, "It’s the most talked about work of culture that indonesia has ever had, with the exception of religious texts or some soap operas.

“The film has come to Indonesia like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing at the King saying ”Look! The King is naked!“ Everybody knew it, and they were too afraid to say it, but once it’s been said this powerfully, this emotionally by the perpetrators themselves, there’s no pretending it’s not the case.”