Between Indonesia and the Oscars, 'The Act of Killing' Makes a Stop in D.C.

Lawmaker joins filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s call for the U.S. to disclose involvement in Indonesian death squads.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer directed "The Act of Killing."

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer directed "The Act of Killing."

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Joshua Oppenheimer’s tour-de-force nonfiction film "The Act of Killing" – in which he filmed executioners in the Indonesian death squads of 1965 and 1966 as they made their own movie about their deeds – is widely considered a front-runner in the Oscar race for best documentary feature. But win or lose come March 2's Academy Awards, “The Act of Killing” has already piqued the attention of Washington.

"I think what this documentary does is it makes us ask some very tough questions," says Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who helped put together a screening of the film at the Library of Congress last week.

Udall had not yet seen the film (which Oppenheimer codirected with Christine Cynn and an anonymous director) when he called Oppenheimer’s mother, a labor lawyer in Santa Fe he has been friends with since he and his wife moved to New Mexico in the 1970s, to congratulate her on her son’s nomination. Joshua happened to be near his mother when she received the call, and she passed the phone over so the senator could congratulate the 39-year-old filmmaker himself.

"Through that discussion, we both concluded that this needed the attention of Congress," Udall says. 

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Anwar Congo in a scene from "The Act of Killing."
An executioner in the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s films a re-enactment in the documentary "The Act of Killing."
Though Oppenheimer’s film is about a human rights atrocity that occurred in Indonesia half a century ago, in subject matter and form, "The Act of Killing" is very concerned with the present.

"One thing that I never was interested in [with the re-enactments] … is to illustrate what it was like at the time. It would somehow be both obscene to me and impossible and meaningless to try to use re-enactment to illustrate the past.” Oppenheimer says. “The purpose of these re-enactments for me is to make visible the present day narratives, the present day stories that Anwar holds in his mind, that the killers in general imposed on the society.”

Oppenheimer first traveled to Indonesia to make another documentary, 2003’s "The Globalisation Tapes," about workers in the palm oil plantations of rural Indonesia. There he met family members of victims of the killings, which targeted suspected communists and ethnic Chinese, and he observed how they still lived in fear of the regime involved with the murders of their relatives.

"I felt that I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power," Oppenheimer says.

Since "The Act of Killing" premiered on the festival circuit last year (it is now available on Netflix), it has been sneaked into Indonesia – Oppenheimer opted out of an official Indonesian release, fearing the government censors – where it has been shown at underground screenings and through digital download. 

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"In Indonesia, the film has come like the child in ‘The Emperor's New Clothes,’ which is exactly what the survivors and the human rights community hoped it would," Oppenheimer says. "[The film is] opening the space for people to talk about the most painful aspects of their country’s history and how it connects to the moral catastrophe of the present day regime of corruption."

Along the way, "The Act of Killing" has earned international acclaim, winning awards at film festivals in Asia, across Europe and in the United States. It claimed best documentary at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards Sunday.

"What we hope is that the film also leads to soul-searching here and that 50 years is enough time for the U.S. to get comfortable with what it did, and set a good example and declassify the documents about how we were involved," Oppenheimer says, a sentiment he echoed at the Library of Congress screening and in his BAFTA acceptance speech.

"At the same time as we encourage Indonesia to also issue a state apology, we should review our relationship to Indonesia now," he says.

Due to last week’s snowstorm, a number of members of Congress slated to attend the screening left town early. But it was still a packed house, with many congressional aides present.

"I think having it out there and having staff come and look at it, you never know what goes from these situations," Udall says. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Udall says he plans to explore a number of options to raise awareness of the issue, perhaps introducing a "sense of the Senate" resolution. Like Oppenheimer, he says, "The United States government should be totally transparent on what it did and what it knew at the time, and they should be disclosing what happened here."  

Udall is also concerned with the situation in Indonesia today.

"The survivors still live in fear, and they’re living in this country with the same government," he says. "There’s a whole human rights issue."