Act of Killing – Darklight Festival – Review

Joshua Oppenheimer at the Darklight Festival

The Darklight festival continues until April 27th.

“The Act of Killing – A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.”

The Act of Killing was one of our favourite films of last year, although I guess favourite is an unusual word to use when you are talking about a documentary that gives you an insight into the lives of a number of mass murderers. Many other documentaries have aimed to show you “the face of evil” but few have found such people living so well at the higher echelons of society, completely untouched by their crimes.

In the post show discussion, director Joshua Oppenheimer talked via skype about his work, and how it came to be. He initially went to Indonesia to make a documentary about plantation workers’ attempts to form a union under the regime that would not allow even basic workers rights.

While he was there, he met the families of those that were murdered during the 1965-66 uprising, which was responsible for the deaths of around 1 million ‘communists’ – basically anyone that they felt was a threat. He organised to meet some of the people that carried out the killings, and found that not only were they willing to discuss them, but they were proud of their actions and boasted of them.

After a number of years filming, he found Anwar Congo, who he thought would be perfect to be the main protagonist of the documentary as he seemed to be troubled by his past, and suffered from nightmares. After several weeks of filming, he decided to show the reels to Anwar, to see what he thought of them. This was something that could have gone horribly wrong, as once Anwar had seen how he was being portrayed, he could have had the filming stopped. Joshua had made preparations to flee if Anwar’s reaction was bad, but instead he seemed drawn into the world of the film maker, and wanted to develop the film further, with the surreal musical numbers and re-enactments of the killings.

The reaction to the film is also fascinating. They never asked for the film to have an official release in Indonesia, as if it was seen by the authorities, it would have been banned. If it was banned, the local people who worked on the project could have been in trouble. Instead, it was shown by a number of ‘invitation only’ events, and distributed through the media. It has opened the debate in Indonesia into the actions that formed the state, and has made people see them for what they are. Before they were seen as part of their glorious past, but now there is a debate taking place on these actions, which will hopefully lead to change.

Joshua also discussed the West’s role in allowing these events to take place, and the large amount of money that was pumped into the country once the coup had occurred. The West’s need for cheap labour and products have helped prop up the current government and allowed workers rights to continue to be infringed. In a sense, we are all complicit with these acts of killing.

Darklight Festival Review Act of Killing

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