The Art of 'Killing': How Much Truth Comes from the Lie that Tells the Truth?
By Sara Vizcarrondo
Before he made his film The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed survivors of Indonesia's bloody "Transition"—the failed military coup of 1965 and the brutal anti-Communist purges that followed—for an exposé on their culture of fear. Police shut down each meeting.
With fear of reprisals, Oppenheimer asked the survivors if they should stop filming. The survivors opposed unanimously, but volunteered a solution: Film the killers, and the police won't stop you. "Begin with my next-door neighbor, the man who killed my aunt," one survivor suggested. "He will appear to be proud. Film that and the audience will see why we are afraid."
After the failed coup, the Indonesian Army began a campaign of political apartheid. They paid street thugs and gangsters to rid the country of the National Communist Party (PKI), whom they blamed for the coup. There were no official trials to prove political affiliations, just semi-private assassinations.
The men who carried out the killings have been glorified in national media as heroes. Even today, they appear on talk shows, have political influence, and boast loudly about their murders to anyone who'll hear—including the families of the nameless victims they left on riverbanks and in ditches five decades ago. The most commonly cited death toll is 500,000, but accurate numbers are hard to tally. It's impossible to say the campaign has ended, since the political class that sanctioned it did so to gain power. And both power and its attainment are limitless things. Corruption persists in Indonesia.
In February 2004, Oppenheimer filmed two killers who took him to a river. During the Transition, these two men would drive a busload of internees from the military concentration camp to a riverbank every night, behead the passengers and throw the bodies in the water. "After they showed us how they'd done it, one of them took a small camera out of his pocket and asked my sound man, ‘Would you mind taking a picture of us to remember this day?' and the two posed, giving the thumbs up and "V" for victory. I went home with that material thinking, I have to make a film that adequately attempts to understand this."
Errol Morris, an executive producer on The Act of Killing, made his 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure in response to the photos depicting the torture and humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. He viewed those images with an exposé quality. "Standard Operating Procedure evidences a moment in which people want to remember themselves while torturing someone," says Oppenheimer. "Errol saw the pictures as confessions of a whistleblower. The Act of Killing is an attempt to understand an entire regime that did something similar; it wasn't just one person."
Oppenheimer spoke to 41 perpetrators and took each of them to the scene of their murders to act out what they'd done. With cameras rolling, they'd lament, "Oh, I should have brought a machete, and friends to play victims." But Anwar, one of the subjects in The Act of Killing, was the only man who returned to the roof where he'd killed hundreds, and neither lamented nor wished for co-conspirators. Instead, he danced. "Unlike the other 40 perpetrators, his pain was somehow close to the surface," Oppenheimer observes. "When he goes out on the roof, he sighs; it's like there's a stone in his shoe. He says, ‘I dance to forget these horrors, and so I'm a good dancer.' And I'm wondering how this must look to him."
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