Rather than a film review, I let the film director Joshua Oppenheimer describe in this interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now how he spent more than eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and in The Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies the men love to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and lavish musical numbers. To listen to Joshua Oppenheimer describe how and why the making of this film evolved in the manner that it did–focusing on the boasting of the killers who are still in power in Indonesia today, as they reenact their killing scenes, and how and why and what story it tells, rather than getting the story from surviving victims — is remarkable.
The film is set in Indonesia, where, beginning in 1965, military and paramilitary forces slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the democratically elected government. That military was backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades. There has been no truth and reconciliation commission, nor have any of the murderers been brought to justice. As the film reveals, Indonesia is a country where the killers are to this day celebrated as heroes by many. “The Act of Killing” opens today in New York City, and comes to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., on July 26, then to theaters nationwide. Clips from the film are included in the interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an astounding film. It is a masterpiece. We’ll talk about whether it can be called a documentary. I wanted to ask you if you could just give us the context of what happened. People—many people who are watching—
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —or listening right now have never even heard of Suharto, so explain to us what happened in 1965.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: So, in 1965, the left-leaning government of Sukarno—it was basically a socialist nonaligned government, Sukarno was the founder of independent Indonesia—was overthrown in a military coup that led to the dictatorship, the 32-year dictatorship of Suharto, and then an ongoing corruption that continues to today. When Sukarno was overthrown, the military swiftly went after everybody who was opposed to the new regime and accused them of being communists. Of course, some of them were communists. Indonesia had the largest communist party, that was committed to achieving political power through the democratic process. They were an unarmed, non—in a way, non-revolutionary communist party. There was—so they were accused, but also women’s—the Indonesian women’s movement, the entire trade union movement, intellectuals, teachers, and the ethnic Chinese, and also land reform advocates. So, within somewhere—within a year, somewhere between half a million and two-and-a-half million people were killed in what was really one of the very largest genocides in our history.
And it was reported in the United States as good news. It was reported in The New York Times and Time magazine fairly accurately in terms of the death tolls, but with headlines like “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” “The West’s Best News for Years in Asia.” So, inevitably, these events have been forgotten in the West, because how do you remember the killing of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people as good news? It doesn’t make sense as a story, and so we forget it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the U.S. role at the time, something that is—
(and an amazing interview on the making of a remarkable film unfolds.)