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'Act of Killing' Director: How Did We Forget 'One of the Biggest Massacres of the 20th Century?'

Anwar Congo wraps a piece of wire around a man's neck, explaining that you can kill someone this way "without spilling too much blood." A few moments later, Congo is dancing the cha-cha.

Opening in the United States on Friday, the documentary film The Act of Killing chronicles the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia, when Congo and other anti-communist gangsters killed upwards of 500,000 alleged communists, Chinese-Indonesians, and intellectuals. The killings took place after a failed coup that led to the fall of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, and rise of the dictator Suharto (text at the beginning of the film mentions the "the direct aid of Western governments" in the atrocities, which included American support).

"The film asks us to look at a period of history that we have forgotten, and I think one of the big questions that it asks is: 'How could we have forgotten one of the biggest massacres of the 20th century?'" the American director Joshua Oppenheimer reflected in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Oppenheimer's unconventional documentary is a film within a film that follows Congo and other preman, or gangsters, in the city of Medan as they re-enact killings from 48 years ago in the style of different genres from American cinema. The documentary presents a historical narrative that counters the Indonesian government's account of events, which largely overlooks the killings and praises those, like Congo, who stopped the spread of communism in the vast archipelago nation. (Golkar, Suharto's political party, remains a powerful force in Indonesian politics today.)

In one scene, Oppenheimer asks Adi Zulkadry, an executioner, about human rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Criminal Court. "'War crimes' are defined by the winners," he replies. "I'm a winner. So I can make my own definition."

In Indonesia, where a censorship board has the power to ban certain films and books, The Act of Killing has been shown only in private screenings since Oppenheimer fears it would be banned otherwise. With over 500 screenings so far, the film has provoked a media reaction and broader discussion in the country, with one Indonesian reviewer stating, "I just wonder how we can make peace with ourselves as a nation and society if we keep on refusing to embrace the bitter truth of history. Our journey to reconciliation is far from over."

"The mainstream media [in Indonesia] essentially broke what was really a 47-year silence about the genocide," Oppenheimer said. "There had been the occasional piece here and there alleging that the story wasn't as the official history said, but there had not been systematic exposés or investigations into what had happened where they actually asked perpetrators to describe the killings."

The documentary paints an unflattering portrait of Indonesia, highlighting the nexus between corruption and politics and a lingering culture of impunity. Scenes shot at a Pancasila Youth rally (a paramilitary group that was involved in the killings, and that counts Congo as a member) show former Vice President Jusuf Kalla praising members and arguing that gangsters are necessary in Indonesia. Several candidates for the country's upcoming presidential election in 2014 are facing allegations of human rights violations.

"You don't have a lot of hope when you look at the official political movements in Indonesia, but I think there is a lot of hope when you look at the thirst for, the hunger for a genuine understanding of the nation's past, and I feel much more hopeful than I did a year ago," Oppenheimer noted.

Asked about what it's like to be a foreigner making a film about such a sensitive period in Indonesian history, Oppenheimer, who began talking to survivors of the killings while making another film in Indonesia, The Globalization Tapes, recalled a threat he received shortly after the film screened in Toronto. He was told that he was lucky not to be living in Indonesia because the film would be called "The Act of Being Killed." (One co-director of the film and other crewmembers are listed as "anonymous" for safety reasons.)

"They [Indonesians] could not make this film safely, we didn't know what the risks would be in approaching the perpetrators, but we knew that they would be greater for an Indonesian," he said. "I think this is a film that could not have been made by an Indonesian director."

The film has prompted a U.K.-based Indonesian activist group to launch a campaign demanding a government apology for the mass violence -- something Oppenheimer supports. "Until there is an apology there will be no rewriting of the nation's school curriculum and acknowledgement that genocide is wrong -- not something to be celebrated," he explains.

But while the film has inspired activism and won critical praise, it's also raised questions regarding just how much the participants knew about the movie they were making. Oppenheimer said that while Anwar Congo, the central figure in the documentary, denounced the film at a Pancasila event before seeing it, he later told Oppenheimer it was an honest portrayal.

"He and I are in touch every few weeks in part because I want to make sure he is not blamed for the film and if he were, we want to be able to move him or help him," Oppenheimer said. "But also because I really care for him, he and I went through a five-year very painful, very intense emotional journey together and it will always be a part of me, what we went through."

Oppenheimer's next film, The Look of Silence, will explore the other side of the conflict by following a family that learns how their son was killed and then confronts the killers.

But his upcoming projects may not bring him back to Indonesia. "I may be able to get into Indonesia," he said. "I am not aware of any official ban, but I don't know that I would ever get out again."

Drafthouse Films

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