With the Oscars coming up, our thoughts tend to evolve around whether Leonardo DiCaprio will finally be awarded for his great performances, or if rom-com sweetheart turned serious actor Matthew McConaughey will win the race. Does Gravity really deserve Best Film? And can Cate Blanchett’s outstanding performance compensate for an otherwise mediocre film? And while the answers to these questions might excite me for the time being, it is a film from a less popular category, that caught my attention: The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

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In just over two hours (add 40 minutes for the even more intense director’s cut) American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer presents one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, far off the advertised image of ‘Wonderful Indonesia’ . The paradisiacal beaches and perfect swell, the friendly people and curious monkeys, the rich cultural heritage and artistic temples – of course, it is all there. But Oppenheimer directs our attention to events 50 years in the past: to the anti-communist purge and genocide of 1965 – 1966.

The killings of hundreds of thousands (alleged) communists followed a failed political coup in 1965. The Indonesian army blamed the Communist Party (PKI), which was subsequently eliminated. Depriving the ruling president of his power, the Indonesian Army fueled the hatred among the citizens. In just a couple of months numerous civilian ‘vigilantes’ and paramilitary death squads killed more than 500,000 people. Oppenheimer portrays Anwar Congo of North Sumatra, a petty crook turned killing machine, who himself murdered approximately 1,000 people – usually by strangulation. The right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, which holds an influential politic position until today, celebrates him and his colleagues as heroes.

Like in a psychological experiment, the director invites Anwar and his former death squad colleagues to re-enact their atrocities of the massacres. They show him the rooftop where the killings took place, their inquisitive torturing techniques and even re-produce the raid of a village. Inspired by the popular culture of the West of the 1960s (mainly influenced by the US-American films screening in Indonesian cinemas) they stage their deeds in genres, like Western, Gangster or Musical. They even refer to themselves as gangsters, only few admit that the killings were wrong. Only when Anwar plays the part of a victim, he starts to realize what cruelty he had committed and shows signs of remorse.

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The film premiered back in August 2012, but has gone on an extensive festival tour around the globe, until it reached Glasgow’s DOCUMENT Human Rights Documentary Film Festival 2013. Upon watching the film, I felt a sickness growing in my stomach, that I can still feel while writing these lines. Triggered by the cruelties on screen and the ignorance still shown by active members of Pemuda Pancasila. Oppenheimer’s film is for everybody interested in human rights and history, whether they are unaware of the Indonesian past, like me, or not. But much more, this film is for the protagonist himself. Far from making blatant propaganda, the filmmaker seems more interested in reaching a point of revelation and epiphany. Fortunately Anwar gains a degree of self-awareness, and Oppenheimer’s experiment of staging and dramatization proves to be successful.

Following up on the Oscar nomination the film is theatrically released and screened in the next couple of weeks. The film’s website gives an overview over all screenings! With the historical background of The Act of Killing travelling to Indonesia gained another facet: sandy beaches and astounding architecture aside, it is a place of commemoration and social awareness. What is not forgotten, is hopefully never repeated!

All photos via The Act of Killing Website.

This is a post by Kathi Kamleitner.

Kathi Kamleitner was a regular contributor at Travelettes from 2013 to 2019. Originally from Vienna, Austria, she packed her backpack to travel the world and lived in Denmark, Iceland and Berlin, before settling in Glasgow, Scotland. Kathi is always preparing her next trip – documenting her every step with her camera, pen and phone.

In 2016, Kathi founded Scotland travel blog WatchMeSee.com to share her love for her new home, hiking in the Scottish Highlands, island hopping and vegan food. Follow her adventures on Instagram @watchmesee!