Blog: Indonesia

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October 23, 2013

Q & A: Joshua Oppenheimer, Director of “The Act of Killing”

Posted by Cara Solomon

Earlier this month, we welcomed the director Joshua Oppenheimer for a panel discussion of his controversial documentary, “The Act of Killing,” a film that explores a country where death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes. Its focus is Indonesia, where a military coup in 1965 led to killings of more than 1 million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Oppenheimer examines the culture of impunity that surrounds those killings through interviews with perpetrators, asking them to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favorite Hollywood genres: the gangster, the western, and the musical.

Clinical supervisor and filmmaker Amelia Evans, LLM ’11, sat down with Oppenheimer prior to the event to discuss the film. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Amelia: I understand the film had a collaborative beginning—that you got feedback from different community members and those in the human rights community and others before really fully embarking on the project. Can you tell me a bit about that, and why you did that?

Joshua: We began this work in collaboration with a community of plantation workers on a Belgian-owned oil palm plantation about 60 miles from Medan, where we made the film. As we made a film with them about their struggle to organize a union, which had been illegal under the Suharto dictatorship, we found out that they were survivors of the genocide. It turned out that the biggest obstacle they faced in organizing a union was fear. And they said: “Please come back as quickly as you can after making this first film to make a film about why we’re afraid.” Namely, the co-existence between perpetrators who enjoy total impunity, and survivors who are still intimidated by them.

When we got back, word had got out that we were interested in what happened in 1965, which was of course the source of their fear—or at least the reverberations of those events into the present—and  the local army stopped allowing us to film with them. Police chiefs would show up, army chiefs would show up, plantation administrators backed up by the army would show up, and not let the survivors talk. The people we were filming with, who we had been very close to because we had made a film with them already, said: “Look, go and film this neighbor or that neighbor”—pointing out several who were death squad leaders at the time—”and they may have information about how our loved ones were killed.”

We filmed them, and they were immensely boastful, and we didn’t expect that, and it was horrifying and shocking. We felt like this is perhaps how the Nazis would talk if 40 years had gone by and they were still in power. And our work on the Belgian oil palm plantation had taught us that this was in fact the dark underbelly of globalization. Indonesia’s not the exception to the rule. What we’re hearing in this boasting is perhaps the allegory for the rule. Continue Reading…

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