American Critics Awed by 'The Act of Killing', but How Is it Playing in Indonesia?


After two artful, formally impeccable hours, the final credits of "The Act Of Killing" have unfathomable numbers of "ANONYMOUS" credits, a reminder that this is an activist documentary made at notable personal danger to those responsible, acting as a spur to find out more. It's worth examining the English-language Indonesian press reactions to the film throughout its unconventional release in an effort to try and develop a better idea of how it's been received at home.

"The Act Of Killing" is the fourth major Indonesian film to refer to the 1965 killings. The first, 1984's "Pengkhianatan G 30 S/PKI" ("The Treachery of the September 30th Movement of the Indonesian Communist Party"), was shown every year on state television and is overt propaganda. The second and third films were both officially submitted as Indonesia's candidate for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in their respective years, so evidently they're not that much of a threat. The trailer for 2005's "Gie" clearly establishes that this martyred activist biopic is not about to throw anyone for much of a loop:

Similarly, 2011's "Sang Penari" ("The Dancer") represents another relative milestone in Indonesian cinema — an adaptation of Ahmad Tomari's trilogy from the early '80s, including the killings Tomari claimed he would have been shot for detailing in his early books. Still, there are comparatively glossy and fictionalized products, neither of which packs the illicit verisimilitude of "The Act Of Killing," which is (Oppenheimer says) unlikely to be approved for widespread public release.

These previous films appear to have been dispensed with as comparable reference points: "The Jakarta Post"'s first article on "The Act of Killing" used "The Innocence of Muslims" as the token starting point for a whole-hearted endorsement: "a new film that should stir more controversy in Indonesia than the trashy 'Innocence of Muslims,' one that every concerned Indonesian must watch." In this editorial, Endy Bayuni reminds readers that in July, the country's National Commission On Human Rights issued a report recommending strict prosecution of the massacre's proponents, compensation of victims and an official government apology, which the government rejected peremptorily along with all other suggestions.

Discussing "The Act of Killing" in October, "The Jakarta Globe" quoted Djoko Suyanto, coordinating minister for political and security affair, whose explanation for why an official apology from the president was unfeasible was unconvincing: “We can’t just apologize without looking at what really happened in the 1965 incident. If we want to look at history, for example the 1965 [incident], we have to look at it based on the perspective in 1965.” As for the film, he had no thoughts: "How can I comment if I haven't seen it?" (More context on related developments can be found here.)

As detailed in a  recent article by Caroline Cooper, as of April director Joshua Oppenheimer estimated that "three hundred covert screenings have happened in ninety-three Indonesian cities reaching up to fifteen thousand Indonesians." (Here's a description from last November of one such screening.) In "The Jakarta Post" (one of two English-language Indonesian journals I was able to find), the first mentions of the film came in late September, juxtaposed against the headline-grabbing provocation of "The Innocence of Muslims," which the Indonesian government condemned for blasphemy while lamenting riot-related deaths blamed on the film and calling on YouTube to block access to the clip.

"The Act Of Killing" quickly emerged as an object of discussion in its own right. Towards the end of September, "The Jakarta Post" reported that some viewers were voicing objections to the film because it "did not involve the military, despite the fact that soldiers carried out the massacres," as 72-year-old purge survivor Astaman Hasibuan said. The film's release drew unwanted to attention to its main subject, 72-year-old Anwar Congo, who said he hadn't known he was starring in a film called "The Act of Killing" but had only agreed to star in a romance called "Arsan and Aminah," in which a paramilitary killer falls in love with a Communist's daughter. Contacted in early October, Congo grouched "'The Act of Killing' is a headache" and that "the fee I got wasn't that big either." Another on-screen subject, Sakhyan Asmara — advisor to the nation's Youth and Sports minister — said "the title is very controversial and appropriate for the original script" and threatened to sue Oppenheimer.

While "The Act of Killing" continues its semi-covert journey through Indonesia, its foreign release serves as a directly activist gesture to draw further global attention to the film and back to Indonesia. A December summarized the public response thus far, with viewers old enough to directly recall the events praising it while younger viewers reported being historically shaken up. "Our history has been distorted," one student said. "Those who I perceived as heroes were, in fact, crueler than those who were considered enemies." The Facebook page for "The Act of Killing" sometimes provides translations of other notable press responses to the film; for the moment, statements from Oppenheimer himself continue to be the main source of English-language updates.

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