Danish film-maker documented the lives of Indonesian killers

Joshua Oppenheimer, a Danish film-maker, screened his new film in Jakarta last week, “The Act of Killing,” re-imagining the lives of the Indonesian death squads who committed a massacre in 1965, reports Charles Anderson of the International Herold Tribune.

Joshua was in northern Sumatra when he first heard the story.

It was about 10 years ago, and he was working on a documentary about a group of Indonesian plantation workers suffering from exposure to a dangerous pesticide. The workers, he found, were too afraid to organize a union to press their case.

Labor organizing on a mass scale has not really taken hold in Indonesia for more than 40 years, in part because in 1965 the union movement was so brutally suppressed. Union workers were labeled communists then, and they were seen as a threat to the nation. As many as 3 million people were said to have been killed in the purges, including some of the parents, grandfathers, aunts and uncles of the Sumatran workers.

Mr. Oppenheimer, a Danish filmmaker, wanted to tell their story, and one of the workers told him, “Well, you can speak to the killers.”

The members of the death squads had lived and been celebrated as heroes of Indonesia. They were called preman — gangsters — and their ruthlessness had been normalized as part of the country’s historical narrative. At first, Mr. Oppenheimer was afraid to talk to them.

He went and lingered outside one man’s home. Hoping to attract his attention, Mr. Oppenheimer pretended to be filming daily life in the small village. Eventually the man, curious, invited him inside and soon was relating his stories from 1965. The man’s 10-year-old granddaughter was in the room as he demonstrated how he killed his victims.

“What’s happening to a society when you can tell that to your granddaughter?” Mr. Oppenheimer told me, speaking from Copenhagen. “How does he see himself? How does he think I see him?”

During the Suharto dictatorship, which ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, children were required, as part of the curriculum, to view a 4 and a half hour film on the communist purges — ultra-violence glorified, he said. Many viewed the killing as a necessary part of nation-building, with the purges something to be celebrated.

Mr. Oppenheimer said he wanted to meet as many killers as he could. “I wasn’t trying to make a historical film,” he said, “but one about what’s happening now.”

The result, seven years after first hearing the workers’ story, is “The Act of Killing.” It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival and last week had its first screening in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. The director Werner Herzog, who was so impressed by the work that he signed on as an executive producer, said he had not seen a film as “powerful, surreal and frightening” in a decade.

“It is unprecedented in the history of cinema,” said Mr. Herzog, quoted on the film’s Web site.

How, Mr. Oppenheimer wanted to know, were these men imagining themselves? So he gave them the opportunity to stage their remembered history in any way they wished. He calls the result an “observational documentary of their imaginations.”

The aging gangsters reconstruct their murders for the camera — sometimes using elaborate sets, costumes, makeup and, sometimes, musical numbers.

In one early scene, a man named Anwar Congo is seen dancing on a rooftop where many of the killings took place.

“Here was this incredible allegory for impunity — dancing in the place where he killed hundreds of people,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “I was chilled.”

After showing him the initial footage, Mr. Oppenheimer thought Mr. Congo might show a hint of remorse. Instead, he lamented that he looked like he was going to a picnic. He would never have dressed like that in real life, he said. When they filmed the final scene, Mr. Congo said he would also have to dye his hair black.

The killers said they took their inspiration from American gangster movies starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Even their method of killing was derivative of cinema — using metal wire for strangulation. When Mr. Congo declares this on a national talk show, the female host responds with visible delight: “Amazing,” she says.

For all of the preman, Mr. Oppenheimer said, the act of killing was exactly that: Their versions of the Hollywood films were a way of acting outside themselves. It was a way to transport themselves into a character who made killing easy.

They were able, as Mr.Congo said, to “kill happily.”

“These men are human, and we can define their kind of behavior as psychopathic,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “But that is an arbitrary definition. Their actions have also been described as good.”

Earlier this year, Indonesia’s human rights commission released a report recommending that the government settle the cases of human rights violations. The panel also called for the president to apologize for what has been called one of the darkest but least discussed periods in modern Indonesian history.

Pressure to address the past has been stonewalled by a succession of governments.

He said he hopes that the Indonesians who see “The Act of Killing” will question why these men have been so lionized, given the horror of their actions.

Mr. Oppenheimer was fearful that the Indonesian premiere might be attacked, or that the film might be banned. (He says he wants the Indonesian version of the film to be copied, pirated, distributed and seen.) Details and publicity of the event were kept under tight wraps, and Mr. Congo, according to Mr. Oppenheimer, was taken to see the film at a secret location.

Someone who said he was at the Jakarta premiere commented on Facebook that the audience’s reaction was stunned silence:

“I’ve never been in a theater where everyone, just everyone, was so absorbed with the film. Silent. In Indonesia, people usually make noise, talk on the phone. But there was total silence.”

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