'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."

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6 Better Reasons Than Snowden to Boycott the Sochi Olympics

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham surprised many on Capitol Hill this week by suggesting that the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia grants asylum to fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "It might help, because what they're doing is outrageous," Graham told The Hill. "We certainly haven't reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it's a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States." 

First of all, this is not a good idea. The last time the U.S. boycotted an Olympics -- 1980 in Moscow -- it didn't accomplish much besides giving the Soviets a propaganda victory and setting the stage for a retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It's hard to imagine a Sochi boycott would be much more effective -- and given the amount of money U.S. companies have invested in the event, it's hard to imagine this actually happening. (Even staunch Russia hawk John McCain didn't seem too impressed by the idea, saying, "I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time around wasn’t very good.")


But if the U.S. were to sit out the games, one beleaguered whistleblower seems like a bit of an insignificant basis for doing so. For the sake of argument, if America is going to start playing the boycott game, recent Russian policies have provided much better reasons to do so:  

1. Crackdowns on opposition

Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny's five-year prison sentence for what are widely viewed as trumped-up embezzlement charges is just the latest example of the Russian government's crackdown on high-profile opposition figures, which has also included the harsh sentences given to the punk group Pussy Riot, and the macabre campaign against lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was convicted of tax evasion this month four years after he died in prison under mysterious circumstances.

2. Restrictions on NGOs

President Vladimir Putin signed a law into effect last summer branding NGOs that receive foreign funding as "foreign agents" and placing further restrictions on their activities. The government has used the law to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development and suspend the election monitoring group Golos, which had publicized evidence of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections, sparking protests.

3. Human rights abuses in the North Caucasus

Just across the Caucasus from where the Games will be held, an Islamist insurgency continues to simmer in the republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. According to Human Rights Watch, Russia's counterinsurgency campaign has included "torture, abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings." The murders of numerous human rights activists -- including Natalya Estimirova of the group Memorial -- remain unsolved.

4. Support for Bashar al-Assad

It's estimated that 10 percent of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts worth about $1.5 billion dollars. Even as international criticism of Bashar al-Assad's regime has grown over the last two years of civil war, Moscow has continued providing military support including air defense systems to Damascus. Along with China, Russia has repeatedly blocked sanctions against Syria at the U.N. Security Council.

5. Gay rights

As the U.S., Britain and other countries have taken major steps toward legal protections for gay rights, Russia has moved in the opposite direction, instituting fines for the "propagation" of homosexuality. Moscow's city council last year banned gay pride marches for the next 100 years. Gay rights groups and the International Olympic Committee have expressed concern over whether the new laws could affect gay athletes and fans at the Olympics.   

6. The U.S. adoption ban

In January 2013, a new law went into effect banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. While there had been isolated cases of adopted children being abused or neglected -- including Dima Yakovlev, for whom the legislation was named, who died after being left in a hot car by his adopted father in 2008 -- the law was widely seen as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. bill placing sanctions on officials linked to the late lawyer's death. The Russian law stranded more than 330 families who were already in the process of adopting children, many of them with special needs. There are more than 300,000 orphans living in 3,000 facilities throughout Russia, and the recent death of a girl with Down syndrome who had been due to be adopted but died in an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod in May has galvanized opponents of the ban.


Would any of these problems be solved by a U.S. boycott of the Olympics? Almost certainly not. But at the very least they will still be pertinent in the winter of 2014, when Snowden's 15 minutes of fame will likely be long over. 

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