Director Joshua Oppenheimer will make his acclaimed documentary on Indonesia's 1965 communist purge "The Act of Killing" available as a free download in the hopes that the controversial film, which was previously only seen in underground screenings, will reach a wider domestic audience.
“We did not release the film immediately online, because we wanted a national conversation to develop," the director said. "We wanted people to see the film together, to experience it together, to discuss it together. After all, the 1965 genocide is a shared history — it belongs not to individuals, but to Indonesia as a nation, and to humanity as a collective aspiration.
"Now that the national discussion has begun, now that more people have probably seen it in screenings than ever would have attended a regular cinema release, it is time to ensure all Indonesians, across the archipelago, can access the film.”
The chilling documentary made waves at film festivals worldwide and, after a series of secret viewings, has spurred interest at home in a period of Indonesian history many would be happy to forget. The film focuses on Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two Medan-based preman, or “gangsters,” who re-enact their brutal roles in the mass killings that left more than 500,000 dead nationwide. The self-described thugs play themselves and their victims, addressing their violent history through the lens of popular American films in the disturbing, and often surreal, documentary.
While Indonesia's Film Censorship Board (BSF) has not banned the film, "The Act of Killing" ("Jagal") was not officially released in domestic theaters. The documentary will be posted for free online by Drafthouse Films and Vice on September 30 in commemoration of the failed coup attempt blamed on the PKI that eventually sparked the massacres.
The film's wider availability will hopefully foster a larger discussion on the events that served as a prelude to then-president Sukarno's fall and push the Indonesian government to address the mass killings head-on, Oppenheimer said.
“The film has come to Indonesia like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ pointing at the king and saying ‘Look, the king is naked,'" he said. "Everybody knows that Indonesian democracy suffers from corruption, thuggery, apathy and the rule of fear... Everybody knows they were being lied to in school, at least at some level.
“Hopefully, the film will continue to help open a space for people to finally discuss the problems they long have known about, if only unconsciously, but been too afraid or uncomfortable to address. That is, after all, the function of art: not to show us things we did not know, but to give us the courage and the language to reflect upon our most painful truths."
The film attempts to describe in detail a time that many in Indonesia have largely chosen to forget, and it has drawn comparisons to Hannah Arendt’s seminal work on Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and the theory of the “banality of evil” for its almost disturbingly normal portrayal of wicked men seemingly unaware of the volume of their deeds.
Despite its subject matter, Oppenheimer doubted Indonesia would block the online release of the film.
“The problem is that if the BSF were to ban the film formally, it becomes a crime to hold any screening," he said. "If it’s a crime to screen the film, that becomes an excuse for paramilitary and preman groups, as well as the military itself, to physically attack screenings... [but the film's] support has been fairly high-profile.
"There would be consequences if the government were to openly ban the film — it would send a signal to the whole world that Indonesia has no commitment to freedom of expression, and consequently cannot be considered a genuine democracy.”
Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher with international NGO Human Rights Watch, welcomed the free release and called it a necessary step in the archipelago’s healing process.
“It is very important for Indonesians to know about [the mass killings],” he said. “Legally, it is difficult to prosecute those involved in the killings because they happened almost 50 years ago. But it provides a good perspective about what happened at the time.
“I think that it’s normal for the country to start acknowledging these events now. If you look at Germany’s experience after World War II, it took the country decades to truly reflect on its actions and acknowledge what really happened."
Olin Monteiro, a writer and an activist for women’s rights who organized a screening at the office of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) last year, also embraced the release, but urged Indonesians to continue to discuss the film’s content.
“[Viewings] should be followed by conversations and exchanges of knowledge [as they were during the screenings], so people can more readily accept the film’s messages,” she said. “There are a number of people who are not ready to accept a film like this.
"Some people in Indonesia aren’t mature enough to see it or do not have an adequate understanding of human rights issues. There is the possibility that some people could take it the wrong way.”
The 1965 massacres are still a controversial issue in Indonesia and are steeped in a history of New Order-era whitewashing, latter-day conspiracy theories and refusal by many of the organizations allegedly involved to accept blame for the deaths. When the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the author of a report on the mass killings, urged the Attorney General's Office to investigate what it called evidence of gross human rights violations, the law enforcement agency declined, saying the testimonies of 349 eyewitnesses was not substantial enough to warrant legal action.
The nation's coordinating minister for political and security affairs Djoko Suyanto showed little interest in meeting calls for an official government apology, stating "we can’t just apologize without looking at what really happened in the 1965 incident."
An eye-opening book on the killings by historian John Roosa titled "Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia," was officially banned until the decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court, Andreas said. The release of "The Act of Killing," will mark another small step toward the nation's acknowledgement of its past sins, he added.
"I'd like to see politicians in areas that experienced the brunt of the killings to make known whatever information they have about that era," he said. "I'd like to see public acknowledgments of the killings in the forms of monuments and photos on the streets of Jakarta, of Surabaya, of Denpasar, like they have in Berlin for the Holocaust.
"Such things would allow Indonesia to move forward and move on from its tradition of self-denial."
— Additional reporting by Abdul Qowi Bastian