Back in 2013, the Danish-based filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer stunned the world with The Act of Killing, a documentary about Indonesia’s blood-soaked past and how political institutions had conspired to turn murderous gangsters into national heroes.
Whereas most serious-minded documentarians approach difficult subject matter through the performance of journalistic objectivity, Oppenheimer’s film about mass-murder took its stylistic cues from the people who did the killings. Secure in the knowledge that they continued to enjoy the support and gratitude of Indonesian political elites, the killers chose to celebrate their past using a combination of surreal dream-sequences and colourful dance routines resulting in a documentary that looked and felt like a beautiful fever dream.
According to Oppenheimer, his intention was always to make two films about the anti-communist purges and how contemporary Indonesia manages to function with a million deaths on its collective conscience. The Act of Killing is a film about the transformation of gangsters into heroes, its brash visual style a reflection of its subjects’ surreal arrogance. The Look of Silence, on the other hand, is a devastatingly quiet film filled with awkward silences, which is precisely what you would expect from a film inspired by people who have spent decades trying to keep their feelings under control.
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The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.
Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.
In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.
The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.
Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.
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