"The film has created a space where Indonesians can discuss this without fear," Joshua Oppenheimer says, describing the effect of "The Act of Killing" in the country whose history it lays bare. In late September, the documentary was released online for free download by every Indonesian with Internet access.
"The story of the 1965 genocide belongs to the Indonesian people. It was always the intention of me and my crew to give all Indonesians access to the film," Oppenheimer says.
"We worked for seven years to create a space where Indonesians could finally discuss without fear how their nation's traumatic past underpins a regime of corruption and exemption from punishment. We hope the film will help them in the struggle for truth, reconciliation and justice."
Before "The Act of Killing" opened, the Indonesian authorities did not recognize the execution of up to a million supposed leftists as a genocide, and the perpetrators have never been tried or in other ways held responsible for the crimes they committed. Instead, they have been represented as heroes who saved Indonesian society from the communists.
Since its world premiere in 2012, the film has been shown numerous times in more than 100 towns and cities across Indonesia. Today, roughly a year later, its impact on the public debate in Indonesia is clear.
Before "The Act of Killing", the media, on the anniversary of the start of the genocide, used to discuss the "horrible communists" and the military's heroic deeds. Today, the rhetoric has completely changed. It is no longer acceptable for former death patrol members to brag about the murders they committed. For the first time ever, the many executions are called by their real name: genocide.
Like the Child in The Emperor's New Clothes
When Oppenheimer was in Indonesia shooting the first footage for what would become "The Act of Killing", survivors of the genocide urged him to look up former death patrol leaders and get their testimonies. Many of the survivors and descendants of the victims were living, as they still do, next door to the killers. Back then they were afraid to openly discuss the crimes that had been committed against them and their families. But Oppenheimer's project gave them new hope.
"They said: 'When Indonesians see this, they will recognize what they already know. We need a film like the child in the Emperor's New Clothes who can point to the emperor and say what everybody already knows, but say it out loud.' And that's what the film has done," Oppenheimer says.
Especially among young Indonesians, Oppenheimer recognizes a need to confront the past.
"I see a younger generation who are hungry for this, coming into their careers and wanting to raise their children in a democracy where people are not intimidated by the wealthiest. They see the perpetrators unmasking themselves in the film and now they have a language to start talking about these things," he says.
But, to what extent can the film lead to real change in Indonesia?
"The film cannot change the political system, but what it can do is open a space to articulate the problem and enable Indonesians to demand a struggle to change the conditions, to demand reconciliation and the establishment of a truth commission as recommended by the National Human Rights Commission.
"Other demands could be a national apology, which would be a first step towards justice – and towards rewriting the nation's school curriculum," Oppenheimer says, adding, "Those are the easiest demands."
Among the more complicated and long-term requirements for change is a movement against corruption among Indonesian politicians and a redistribution of wealth to benefit families that have been systematically impoverished and oppressed since the genocide took place. These demands are altogether harder to push through, Oppenheimer admits.
"The film can't change all that, but it can pierce the hermetic container of moral value so that people can finally discuss this without being fearful," he says.
Read more about the impact of "The Act of Killing" in Indiewire's article: "How Do We Measure the Impact of Documentaries?"
Photo: Final Cut for Real
A Documentary of the Imagination / The Act of Killing
Mesmerizing, edifying, overpowering – accolades have rained down on Joshua Oppenheimer's film since its world premiere in 2012 at the festivals in Telluride and Toronto. Since then, the films has been shown at more than 100 festivals worldwide and won more than 30 awards. In October, the movie website Indiewire ranked the film first among the best reviewed documentaries in 2013 so far.
"The Act of Killing" is provocative, fascinating and shocking in its unusual method. Instead of making a film about the victims of the atrocities in 1965-66, Oppenheimer elected to focus on the winners, the killers, who, without an ounce of shame but driven by vanity and pride, re-enact their "heroic" deeds in sometimes extravagant, kitschy tableaus in front of Oppenheimer's camera. The result is a "documentary of the imagination," as Oppenheimer has dubbed his film.
"The Act of Killing" is produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen and Anne Köhncke for Final Cut for Real.