New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres
President Suharto, 1998
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AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with the director of a groundbreaking new documentary called The Act of Killing. The film is set in Indonesia, where beginning in 1965 the military and paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the government. That military was backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades. There’s been no truth and reconciliation commission. As the film says, Indonesia is a country where the killers are, to this day, celebrated as heroes. A key figure in the film is Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand, people with his own hands and is now revered as a founding father of an active right-wing paramilitary organization.
Well, director Joshua Oppenheimer spent more than eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and in The Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies the men love to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and lavish musical numbers. The film is remarkable.
Now, the issue of the Indonesian military’s brutality is no stranger to our Democracy Now! audience. In 1990 and '91, I traveled to Indonesia and occupied East Timor. I went there with reporter Allan Nairn. There, we witnessed a massacre by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military. That was the Indonesian military occupying a foreign land. This film deals with the Indonesian military's murder of its own people.
Well, this week, I sat down with Joshua Oppenheimer to talk about The Act of Killing, which he directed with Christine Cynn and an Indonesian co-director who remains anonymous for fear of retribution for making the film, as does much of the Indonesian film crew. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. The Act of Killing opens today in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and comes to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., July 26, then to theaters nationwide. This is a clip from the film’s trailer.
HERMAN KOTO: [translated] Cut! Cut! Cut! You acted so well, but you can stop crying now.
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] "War crimes" are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Have mercy on me!
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] Honestly, I never expected it to look this brutal.
I can’t do that again.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Kill!
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] I did this to so many people. Have I sinned?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Act of Killing, a new film that has been eight years in the making. Its director, Josh Oppenheimer, joins us now in studio, longtime filmmaker who has worked for over a decade with militias, death squads, their victims, to examine political violence and the public imagination. The Act of Killing’s co-director remains anonymous. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Joshua Oppenheimer, welcome to Democracy Now!
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an astounding film. It is a masterpiece. We’ll talk about whether it can be called a documentary. I wanted to ask you if you could just give us the context of what happened. People—many people who are watching—
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —or listening right now have never even heard of Suharto, so explain to us what happened in 1965.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: So, in 1965, the left-leaning government of Sukarno—it was basically a socialist nonaligned government, Sukarno was the founder of independent Indonesia—was overthrown in a military coup that led to the dictatorship, the 32-year dictatorship of Suharto, and then an ongoing corruption that continues to today. When Sukarno was overthrown, the military swiftly went after everybody who was opposed to the new regime and accused them of being communists. Of course, some of them were communists. Indonesia had the largest communist party, that was committed to achieving political power through the democratic process. They were an unarmed, non—in a way, non-revolutionary communist party. There was—so they were accused, but also women’s—the Indonesian women’s movement, the entire trade union movement, intellectuals, teachers, and the ethnic Chinese, and also land reform advocates. So, within somewhere—within a year, somewhere between half a million and two-and-a-half million people were killed in what was really one of the very largest genocides in our history.