News / Arts & Entertainment

Oscar-Nominated 'Act of Killing' Urges Indonesia to Face Its Genocidal Past

"The Act of Killing" director Joshua Oppenheimer (right) speaks with his main character, Anwar Congo (seated, wearing cap). (AP/Drafthouse Films)
Sarah Williams
The bloody beginning of Indonesian President Suharto’s 32-year dictatorial reign is the focus of the Academy Award-nominated film The Act of Killing.   

From the title alone, it’s clear this nominee for Best Documentary Feature pulls no punches in seeking clarity on the frenzy of terror that gripped the Southeast Asian nation during the mid-1960s.

“Of course, it’s a huge honor for us, but much more importantly, it’s a really important moment for the survivors and the victims of genocide in Indonesia,” said Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing.

“My hope is that the nomination will actually encourage the Indonesian government to finally acknowledge the moral catastrophe of the genocide.”
Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are guarded by soldiers as they are taken by an open truck to prison in Jakarta following a crackdown on communists in 1965.Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are guarded by soldiers as they are taken by an open truck to prison in Jakarta following a crackdown on communists in 1965.
Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are guarded by soldiers as they are taken by an open truck to prison in Jakarta following a crackdown on communists in 1965.
Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are guarded by soldiers as they are taken by an open truck to prison in Jakarta following a crackdown on communists in 1965.
The mass bloodletting began in 1965-1966, as Suharto rose to power following the ouster of President Sukarno.  An estimated 500,000 people were killed. 

Said to target suspected communists, the victims also included ethnic Chinese, as well as leftists working as trade unionists, teachers and artists.  The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has described the bloodletting as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.”   But it is a genocide that is downplayed in most Indonesian history books.

Oppenheimer began the project with the intention of filming the survivors of the upheaval, and letting them tell their stories. But that quickly proved impossible.

“The army found out what we were doing,” he said. “The Indonesian army is stationed in every village, and in order to monitor, and ultimately, if needed, suppress the population, they found out what we were doing, and warned the survivors not to participate in the film.”

The survivors encouraged the film crew to seek out the perpetrators, hoping that their recollections would reveal the details of the deaths of their relatives.  

It was a suggestion that Oppenheimer initially resisted.

“I was nervous at first to approach the perpetrators, but when I did, I found to my horror that every single one of them was open, every single one of them was boastful, and would recount the grisly details of the killings, often with smiles on their faces in front of their families, even their little grandchildren,” he said. “It’s as though I wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.”

The regime that was founded on crimes against humanity has never been held accountable.  In fact, former death squad commanders are happy to boast about their role.

The film concentrates on one of them, Anwar Congo, who estimates he killed about 1,000 people.  He takes the film crew to a roof of a building where he killed hundreds, and describes a method he used to lessen the amount of blood. 

In another scene, Anwar acts as the victim of a killing. We then see him with his grandchildren.  And finally, we see him coming to terms with the killings he committed many years ago.
Oppenheimer believes the present Indonesian government, and the Western countries which welcomed the Suharto takeover, should acknowledge the terrible events of the mid-1960s. 

“We’d like to see the Indonesian government acknowledge the past,” he said.  “But we’d like to see the U.S. government, the British government, the Australian government all acknowledge our collective role in supporting, participating in and ignoring these crimes.”

The U.S. has formally denied supplying aid to the Suharto forces.  But the U.S. embassy in Indonesia encouraged and lauded the military’s actions in the genocide’s early stages.  Academics and human rights groups say it also gave the army the names of thousands of Communist Party members.

The Jakarta Globe newspaper quoted Presidential spokesman for foreign affairs Teuku Faizasyah as saying the film “is simplifying a dark, complicated period of history.”  

The film portrays Indonesia as a “'cruel and lawless nation,” Faizasyah said.  “It must be remembered [that] Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed.”

Not enough, apparently, for a group of 60 Indonesian crew members who opted not to list their names in the film's credits. Reflecting the sensitivity to the topic in Indonesia, an anonymous Jakarta-based co-director did not wish to publicly reveal his/her name.

While progress has been made to address the killings in the 16 years since the end Suharto’s death, a critical report by Indonesia’s human rights commission (Komnas HAM) has been rejected by the Attorney General and the Supreme Court as providing insufficient evidence. 

The Academy Awards will be announced Sunday, March 2, in Los Angeles.

You May Like

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: zickcrow from: Bogor
March 01, 2014 9:19 AM
why there isn't anything being said about the possibility that the U.S government, in this case CIA, are involved in the outrageous take over of Sukarno's government? By the way, who is Soeharto anyway before this take over? Then, he supposed to kill all the higher rank generals to fulfill the "Supersemar" letter, a letter which written in it a regulation that a general is allowed to rule over the government in the time of turmoil. Which until now the whereabouts of the letter is still a mystery. And what the U.S government gained from this deal? The right answer would be "too much". One of them is the gold mountain in Papua, in a city called Tembagapura. And also there's a "little" conspiracy in the naming of "Tembagapura" because it actually meant "Copperfield" which is a big fat lie. It is actually an actual mountain full of gold which now already turned into a deep valley, that also still full of gold. Do I have to mention the name of the company that owned that mine? I guess it wasn't necessary, there's only one gold mine company owned by U.S in there.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley












Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”