© 2024 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Film Unveils Underpinnings Of Mass Killings In Indonesia


If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A new documentary is out that takes an unconventional look at the brutal mass killings that took place in Indonesia nearly 50 years ago. Starting in 1965, between 500,000 and two million people were tortured and killed by paramilitary death squads. They did it in the name of halting the spread of communism. The film explores the Indonesian massacres but not through the eyes of the victims. Rather, the documentary focuses on the death squad leaders. Pat Dowell has more on "The Act of Killing."

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: "The Act of Killing" opens with a surreal image.


DOWELL: A line of show girls dances out of a lakeside building that looks like a giant fish - a former restaurant, it turns out. The amateurish musical number is part of a film shoot. They pose by a waterfall joined by two men. Someone offscreen shouts at them to emote.


DOWELL: The older man is a former death squad leader acting out his vision of himself as savior of Indonesia. When director Joshua Oppenheimer showed this and other scenes to Werner Herzog, the legendary German filmmaker was so impressed that he signed on as executive producer.

WERNER HERZOG: As a film, it is unprecedented in its qualities. It's material that you have never seen before. And it has a power and a frightening substance and a surrealism that is completely unprecedented in what I know as history of cinema.

DOWELL: More than seven years ago, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make a film about the survivors of the genocide. But that proved too dangerous for all involved. The survivors, the filmmaker says, urged him to talk to the killers instead. He interviewed more than 40 of them.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: And as I met perpetrator after perpetrator, within minutes of telling me horrible stories, they would then typically say, I guess you want to see where it happened, and invite me to the places where they killed and then launch into these sort of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed.

DOWELL: He began to wonder why they all boasted about their crimes.

OPPENHEIMER: It has something to do with keeping the rest of the society afraid. Maybe it has something to do with reassuring themselves that what they did was right.

DOWELL: Only one of them admitted to having bad dreams, and Anwar Congo became the focus of the film. He'd been a movie ticket scalper before becoming a death squad leader and wanted to demonstrate his murder techniques as scenes from gangster movies and musicals.


DOWELL: Oppenheimer agreed to pay for props, costumes, extras and expenses - about half of the film's $100,000 budget. He saw the reenactments as a way of giving Congo enough rope but also a dark mirror. He showed Congo scenes after each was filmed to see if the killer could maintain his denial.

OPPENHEIMER: As Anwar shows how awful this was and comes to glimpse and recognize somehow his own brokenness and the horror of what he's done, this facade of genocide as a kind of heroic chapter in the nation's history, that starts to come crumbling down.

DOWELL: The film combines this process of individual probing with a look at how today's Indonesia is founded on this genocide. The government still depends on the paramilitary groups to help it maintain order. Soe Tjen Marching, a London-based writer and composer, whose father was tortured, imprisoned and released before she was born, has seen the film.

SOE TJEN MARCHING: I cried when the film ended, because I - for some time, actually, I hated my father because of the political situation. I thought my father was guilty. I thought my father was a bad person. But this film, you know, has such a huge impact on me because we almost don't need the victims to say how bad it was. The perpetrators say it all.

DOWELL: Marching says after watching "The Act of Killing," she understood something about her family still living in Indonesia.

MARCHING: It is really frightening. And my mom has all the reasons to still get frightened, and I can't ignore that.

DOWELL: In the film, the old killers and new government officials joke about doing away with any complaining survivors. Many of the Indonesian crew members and one of Oppenheimer's two co-directors are listed in the credits as anonymous for fear of reprisals. The film has been shown to small groups in Indonesia. It's sparked articles and a human rights report. But Werner Herzog is sure it will affect viewers outside the country.

HERZOG: "The Act of Killing is one of those films where you know it's going to stick to you until the end of your days. It's - it has become part of you.

DOWELL: Director Joshua Oppenheimer hopes that'll be true, even for audiences thousands of miles away who might consider Indonesia someone else's problem. It's not just the fact that a number of foreign governments - including the U.S. - supported what they saw as the Indonesian military's anti-communist efforts. It's more personal than that, he says.

OPPENHEIMER: I think that "The Act of Killing' asks you to see yourself - even for a short moment - in a man, in a perpetrator of genocide. And in that moment that you make that connection, we see that we are all closer to perpetrators than we like to think in the sense that every article of clothing touching your body or my body at this moment is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. And all of them are working in places where perpetrators have won, and they've built regimes of fear on the basis of their victories.

DOWELL: For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.