Newspaper article Roll Call

'The Act of Killing' on a Grand Stage

Newspaper article Roll Call

'The Act of Killing' on a Grand Stage

Article excerpt

"Well, what can you say after that?" Sen. Tom Udall asked after the screening of "The Act of Killing" at the Library of Congress' Mary Pickford Theater. The film by Joshua Oppenheimer, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, examines the lives of the perpetrators of Indonesia's mass killings of dissidents in 1965- 1966, many of whom still occupy places of power and prestige in the world's fourth-largest country.

Udall, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a connection to the filmmaker's family. Sam Oppenheimer, the director's brother, is a former Udall staffer and the Democratic senator is friends with the family. He heard the accolades about the documentary and took the opportunity to see the Feb. 12 screening. But New Mexico's senior senator went into that screening, like most people who watch the film, unprepared for what he was about to see: an examination of one of the 20th century's darkest acts, carried out with impunity by people still in power and re-enacted for Joshua Oppenheimer's film in a series of surreal episodes for the camera.

"Art sometimes tells us stories we don't want to hear, don't want to face," Udall said afterward.

The project that would eventually become "The Act of Killing" started for Oppenheimer in 2001, when he went to Indonesia to make "The Globalization Tapes" for the Geneva-based International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers. It was a project about plantation workers' efforts to unionize.

In that capacity, he worked with survivors and the families of survivors of the 1960s genocide who were discouraged from unionizing by military and paramilitary groups. The workers confided to Oppenheimer that their position in Indonesian society had been marginalized for decades, dating to the 1965 coup and its targeting of dissidents.

They encouraged him to return to make a film about the survivor community. When he did, in 2003, "quickly ... the army realized now we're no longer simply talking about what's going on in the plantation today, we're actually looking at what happened in 1965, and the army started to warn every, all the survivors with whom I was living and close with, not to make the film."

The survivors' response, and Oppenheimer's, was relatively unique. "The survivors then said, 'OK, try and film the perpetrators.'"

Oppenheimer was skeptical, telling the audience at the Pickford Theater, "I didn't know if it was safe to approach them." But his project eventually took on epic proportions, as he spent the next several years interviewing perpetrators, almost all of whom were eager to discuss, sometimes gleefully, their roles. "It was if we visited Germany 40 years after the war, only to see that the Nazis were still in power," Oppenheimer said.

The documentary that resulted, with the backing of two of the genre's titans, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, is a mix of dispassionate confessional, re-enactments, surreal imagery and queasy dark humor. Some of the perpetrators are joined by a younger generation of paramilitary members from groups such as Pancasila Youth, which continue to aid in the intimidation of political or cultural dissenters.

Among the most compelling subjects are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, executioners from the 1960s, and Herman Koto, a younger gangster and paramilitary member who just so happens to frequently be dressed in drag during many of the dream-like re-enactments. Koto, Oppenheimer explained, was in a paramilitary theater troupe and has a flair for the dramatic. "It is beautiful ... absurd, and I must leave it that way for you," Oppenheimer said of Koto.

The mix of the horrific and the surreal in the film certainly fits within the purview of one of its executive producers, Herzog. …

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