In the Western press, critics have responded with almost unanimous enthusiasm to the documentary film The Act of Killing, which could win an Academy Award on Sunday. One notable voice against the trend is the BBC's documentary editor Nick Fraser, who in The Guardian last weekend dismissed it as 'a high-minded snuff movie.'
It's worth considering the film in the context of contemporary Indonesia, a post-authoritarian state in the process of consolidating as a democracy, and in a broader historical context.
Let's begin by correcting a myth: the film is not banned in Indonesia. Director Joshua Oppenheimer deliberately avoided censorship by not submitting the film for approval, predicting it would be rejected. Since the film is not banned, private screenings are not technically illegal, and are thereby protected by law from the possibility of a violent response by those who disagree with its message.
As exciting as it sounds, some of the so-called 'guerrilla screenings' of the film in Indonesia were not quite as underground as you might expect. The Australian-dominated Ubud Writers and Readers Festival held an open screening without incident, clearly advertised in its promotional material. Several other screenings were held peacefully in Jakarta and elsewhere.
Even for those who haven't made a screening, the film is easily accessible in Indonesia via free download or pirated DVD. There have been few disruptions to the promotion of the film in Indonesia. There was a brief period when the website became unavailable, for which the government denies responsibility, and one newspaper editor in West Java was mobbed for using the film to criticise the group Pancasila Youth, an incident which was more about his comments than the film itself.
Comparatively speaking, the Miss World pageant last year created a bigger stir.
The Indonesian Government has not completely ignored the film. Presidential spokesman for foreign affairs Teuku Faizasyah recently commented to local media that the film portrays Indonesia as a 'cruel and lawless nation,' adding 'that is not appropriate, not fitting. It must be remembered (that) Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed.'
This response is hardly surprising for a film that in its blurb describes democratic Indonesia as 'a country where killers are celebrated as heroes'. Teuku further questioned the film's focus on a small group of gangsters from Medan, North Sumatra. 'The sources are limited to the few who committed acts of atrocity,' he said. 'Is that really sufficient to interpret a significant historical event?'
Teuku's comments are supported by other critics, though not in the way he might hope. Australian historian Robert Cribb agrees that the focus of the film is too narrow, and should have had more emphasis on the role of the Indonesian state and military, as well as the international approval of Indonesia's massacres in the 1960s, including from Australia and the US.
Cribb, like Fraser in The Guardian, further criticises the format of the documentary, in which the Medan gangsters are asked to re-enact their killings via a movie they themselves script, direct and act in. The subjects appall viewers with their light-hearted recollections of murder and rape. Cribb writes that this approach 'puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life'.
Medan was not the only site of mass killings in 1965-66. Indonesia's anti-communist purges took place across the archipelago, resulting in between 500,000 and one million deaths. A report by Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) concluded that the killings were the result of a state policy to exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party and its sympathisers. This policy was widely welcomed during the Cold War by Western states fearful of rising communism in Southeast Asia. Australia and the US at the time were involved in their own anti-communist operation in Vietnam.
In Indonesia, the history of this time was buried for 32 years under a state-endorsed version of events. Under Suharto's New Order, students were required to watch a film called Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI ('The Treason of the 30 September Movement/Indonesian Communist Party), in which communists were portrayed as bloodthirsty sadists.
Oppenheimer's own bloodthirsty sadists are brought in to replace this version of history, with similarly dehumanising results. It will be difficult for ordinary Indonesians to reconcile the gangsters' psychopathic bragging with the alleged involvement of respected social and religious groups in the killings in the 1960s. Nonetheless, these ordinary Indonesians, especially the younger generations, may have remained unaware of this side of their history if it weren't for The Act of Killing.
A group of 60 Indonesian crew members have opted not to list their names in the film's credits, including an anonymous Jakarta-based co-director, reflecting the sensitivity of the topic in Indonesia. Progress has been made to address the killings in the 16 years since the end of the New Order, though mostly from the side of the persecuted left. The report by Komnas HAM has been rejected by the Attorney General and national leaders have refused to front reconciliation efforts.
The Act of Killing is not a perfect representation of Indonesia's history in the 1960s and it should not be uncritically accepted by Western audiences as a portrait of Indonesia today. At the same time, the power of the film's narrative should not be underestimated. Through its relatively free circulation among young Indonesians and its rise to global attention at the Oscars, the film serves as a starting point for addressing an otherwise forgotten period of Indonesia's history.