The Act of Killing. You need to see this film.
To say I came to The Act of Killing with high expectations would be an understatement. With two of my all-time favourite filmmakers on board as Executive Producers (Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, in case you’re wondering) and a trailer that suggested an imaginative approach to the art of documentary, I felt like this was the human rights film I had been waiting for. Happily, it delivered.
‘We were killing people who didn’t want to die’
Anwar Congo is a self-confessed mass murderer. An estimated 500,000-1 million men, women and children were killed in the context of the failed coup in Indonesia when the military launched a systematic attack against ‘communists’ and suspected communist sympathisers in the country.
Anwar proudly claims to be responsible for more than 1,000 of these deaths. And this is his film.
A documentary of the imagination
The director Joshua Oppenheimer spent years working with victims of the 1965-66 violence, keen to publicly expose and explore survivors’ experiences. But it was when he began talking to the perpetrators that he realised they weren’t hiding their acts, they were celebrating them.
A former small time gangster who made his money selling cinema tickets outside theatres, in 1965 Anwar and his friends became death squad leaders. Now old men, they reminisce about their days of murder in the same way someone might hark back to university or school days.
It really is stranger than fiction, so Oppenheimer invited them to make a movie.
The series of incredibly surreal and somewhat camp vignettes that they produced in different Hollywood styles (ranging from Westerns to Gangster films and many less clear references in between) are dotted throughout The Act of Killing.
Showing memories of killings, torture, interrogations, and massacres, they offer an unsettling insight into how Anwar and his friends have come to understand their violent acts.
When Anwar’s neighbour, whose stepdad was murdered for being a ‘communist’, suggests that they include his experience in one of their films they reject it. They say his story is too complex but it feels more like it’s too realistic, too full of pain and suffering. And it disrupts the blameless narrative that they are weaving.
It is a powerful and clever use of cinema that succeeds in exposing the culture of impunity in the country more than a conventional documentary ever could.
Like I said, it’s a film you really should watch. And if you want to hear from the man who made it, go to one of the Q&As he’s hosting across the country
The context of the killing
Following a failed coup in 1965 the Indonesian military – headed by Major General Suharto - launched a systematic attack against members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and suspected sympathisers.
An estimated 500,000 to one million people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were held without charge or trial, many of them tortured. Rape, sexual slavery and other crimes of sexual violence were also committed.
To date, no perpetrators have been held to account.
On 20 July 2012 Indonesia’s National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) submitted an inquiry to the Attorney General’s Office. It had conducted a three year investigation that found evidence of widespread human rights violations being committed across the country between 1965 and 1966 and continued at a lower level into the early 1970s.
According to the Commission, these findings meet the criteria of ‘gross violations of human rights’, which include crimes against humanity, which violate Indonesian law. Komnas HAM called on the Attorney General to launch an official investigation based on its findings and to establish an ad hoc Human Rights Court to bring the perpetrators to justice. Komnas HAM also called on the authorities to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and to make a formal apology to the victims and their families.
To date there has been no sign that the Attorney General will launch any investigation. And the failure to address these violations contributes to a wider culture in which perpetrators of human rights abuses are rarely held accountable
My only hope is that The Act of Killing helps to shine the light on this culture of impunity, and that all victims and survivors of these appalling human rights abuses – and their families – get one step closer to truth, acknowledgement and justice.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.