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Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With 'The Act of Killing'

By Jill Godmilow | Indiewire March 5, 2014 at 3:49PM

"I write here to start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none."
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The Act Of Killing

Don't Make History Without Facts

In spite of the scale of their deeds, the Medan gangsters featured in “The Act of Killing” are, in fact, no more than foot soldiers and footnotes to a much larger drama – a 50-year sequence of upheavals, which permitted a paranoid and aggressive U.S., with other allies, to depose left-leaning leaders and popular movements in any way they saw fit – all over the world. It began in Iran in 1953, then in Indonesia, 1965, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia starting in 1965, in Chile, 1973, then in El Salvador and Nicaragua, 1979, in Guatemala in 1982, in Iraq, 2001, and then some. There is no mention in Oppenheimer’s film of the role of the U.S. in the Indonesian massacres, or of the bigger Cold War drama.

It is irresponsible, even obscene, to take up the current abysmal Indonesian political condition without laying out the history of who was complicit in the military overthrow of President Sukarno and the massacre that followed, activities that threaten citizens even today. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta supplied the right-wing Indonesian military with lists of up to 5,000 suspected Communists for elimination. (Steeped in the “domino theory”, which argues that if one state in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding states would follow in a chain reaction, President Lyndon Johnson was dedicated to the “containment” of China’s and the Soviet Union’s capacity to spread communism throughout Asia. Johnson continued to support Suharto’s “New Order” coup until the general had terrorized and then completely secured the country.)

Without context, there is only sensation and spectacle. Yet there is the illusion of learning and caring. After two hours of “The Act of Killing,” we leave the theater with a fantasy degree in Indonesian history… credentialed, but ignorant, and absolved. Instead of offering useful history and analysis, the film’s exploitation of the Medan thugs actually rebunkers the traces of the 1965 genocide and its aftermath, further perpetuating the crimes.        

Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People By Other Little Brown People

The Act of Killing

Consider whether your film helps anybody understand anything useful, especially when representing people of another color, or any other category of human, in unique and complex historical situations.

Horror shows, like the terrorizing of the Indonesian people, make us gasp in horror and disbelief. Yet, as with all liberal-consensus documentaries, we feel we are doing some civic duty by just witnessing the troubles. We feel we have “cared.” Then, when the film ends, as the lights are coming up, we recuperate ourselves in our cinema seats, semi-consciously, with the unspoken sentiment, “Thank God that’s not me… nor mine.”  (Thank God I don’t live in a gangster paradise, as Indonesia is represented in this film.)  The horror show is over and we can go home, enlightened, ennobled, refreshed…absolved.

After 60 odd years of “underdeveloped” and “third world” geo-political constructions by “first world” cultures, to step into “third world” waters requires respect and extreme caution to avoid unconsciously generating chauvinistic representations. There is no evidence in this film – and there should be – that the Indonesian people are capable of resistance to domination and terror. The history books and filmed records tell us they are capable. (For example, witness Joris Iven’s “Indonesia Calling,” a 1946 documentary film about trade union seamen, waterside workers and passionate Indonesian freedom fighters, refusing to service Dutch ships containing arms and ammunition destined for Indonesia to suppress the country's independence movement. There is "A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry" ("Puisi tak terkuburkan"), by the Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, made in 2000…the first Indonesian film to revisit the 1965 massacres. And more recently, the 2011 documentary Dongeng Rangkas. There are others.)

The Swedish filmmaker and University of Minnesota scholar Dag Yngvesson, currently writing a PhD dissertation on Indonesian Cinema, has watched “The Act of Killing” at many different Indonesian screenings and describes the relation of us (western filmmaker/western audience) vs. them (Indonesian subjects) in this way:  “As ‘The Act of Killing’ uses the information it has gathered to shock its Indonesian audience into accepting the truth of its representations, it simultaneously reduces its local viewers, who are implicitly “in” the film, to the level of not yet democratic, not yet enlightened, and, at some level, still in need of a caring outsider to help guide them on the path to positive change.”

In a recent panel presentation, Yngvesson expanded his analysis of how "The Act of Killing" secures the post-colonial country of Indonesia to our understanding of a doomed state:

Yet each moment of creativity, and each ostensibly ‘free’ admission of violence, lechery, or lack of remorse from its participants ultimately serves to tighten the reigns of Oppenheimer’s discursive control. Using their candid descriptions, he feeds both local and international audiences an Indonesia that is too easily digested, shocking atrocities and all, and settles comfortably within the pre-processed realm of the known. Well-stocked with ideas born of the Geneva Convention and the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Oppenheimer places his interlocutors, and their film, in a hermetically sealed story-world where a typically crumbling, underdeveloped nation is neatly divided along axes of good and evil by the contemporary standards of international law.

Don’t Produce Freak Shows of the Criminal, Oppressed, “the Primitive"

Don’t herd “others-than-us” into cinema cages and then examine their “peculiarities” of action, speech, their fears, their limitations, their despotisms, as if they are foreign to the natural, the human… the family of man. Don’t wantonly project unexamined political criteria, especially on a people with a long history of colonial subjugation. And, as importantly, refuse to make any representations that suggest that the others-than-us are needy of our caring, filmic intervention.

This article is related to: The Act of Killing , Joshua Oppenheimer, Awards Season, Spirit Awards, Oscar Academy Award, Spirit Awards, Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries





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