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"I felt at that point as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power."

This inventive and provocative documentary is about Indonesia’s genocide in 1965, wherein Indonesian President Sukarno’s government was overthrown by the military. Anyone who opposed the military dictatorship could be accused of being a “communist” and, therefore, executed by death squads. Many of these death squad officials were previously small-time gangsters and some are considered “heroes” in Indonesia. In less than a year, there were over one million “communists” who were murdered by these death squads...

--I realized everything we buy is produced in places where there has been mass violence or the perpetrators have won and where in their victory they have built in a fear to keep the workers who make everything so oppressed that they are unable to get the human cost of what we buy incorporated in the price tag that we pay.

Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place like Indonesia and I realized, this is the dark underbelly of our reality and it needs to be explored and exposed--
(via tcDailyPlanet)

Image Hosted by Tonight on TDS, director Joshua Oppenheimer, promoting his documentary The Act of Killing; and on TCR, 'Conscience of the Congress' Rep. John Lewis, promoting his new graphic novel, March Book One .
sausage grinder of snark
Sit down,  relax, have a cuppa.

The film, which was given its premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival, has been a sensation on the festival circuit for its artful fusing of cinematic artifice and truth at its rawest and most unnerving. Oppenheimer not only found a death squad leader and his followers who would speak candidly about the crimes they committed 50 years ago, but they also reenact those episodes, in lurid, amateurish improvisations derived from the Hollywood genre films they imitated during their most heinous actions.

The result is a chilling account of slaughters that still reverberate throughout Indonesia in the form of corruption, cynicism and fear. The film also operates as a surreal meta-meditation on the grammar of violence, the legacy of co­lo­ni­al­ism, self-deception and the possibility of remorse. For Oppenheimer, it all started with the simple question of what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s, which he started asking on his previous project, “The Globalization Tapes.”

Oppenheimer was living in London, having studied film at Harvard and as a Marshall Scholar, and he was working with former classmate Christine Cynn on developing experimental documentaries. Oppenheimer and Cynn were commissioned by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers to make a documentary in a country where workers were trying to form a union, and the team found itself in Indonesia, filming workers on an oil palm plantation. “I didn’t know Indonesian yet, I didn’t know about the killings,” Oppenheimer recalls. “And it turned out the biggest obstacle that these women had in organizing a union was fear.”

Oppenheimer discovered that many of the workers’ parents and grandparents had been in unions in the early 1960s and then were accused of being communist sympathizers when the military dictator Suharto came to power. “They were placed in concentration camps by the army in ’65, and then dispatched out to civilian death squads that would take them to riverbanks and kill them,” Oppenheimer said. “And [the people we interviewed] were afraid this could happen again.” (~ Washington Post)

I first headed to Indonesia to make a documentary about a community of plantation workers who were struggling to organize a union. They desperately needed a union because the women workers were spraying a herbicide that were dissolving their litter and killing them in their 40s and they were afraid to organize one because their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965. They had been accused of being communist sympathizes for being in a union and they were put into concentration camps by the Army and then dispatched by the Army to be killed by local death squads.

My collaborator, Christine Cynn, [and I] were making this film in 2001-02 called The Globilisation Tapes, and while we were filming that, we were asked by a neighbor in this plantation village, to help to see if this is how her relatives had died this way. So we went and introduced ourselves cautiously to this man, [thinking] perhaps he would be wondering who these foreigners living in this remote plantation community might be, and he invited us in and offered us tea. When we asked what he did for a living, he immediately launched into these horrific stories of killing “communists,” saying he had been promoted from being the security guard of the plantation into the manager of the plantation by killing 200 communists. When asked what he meant, he said he "eliminated the union.”

I felt at that point as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.I thought that this was both horrific and utterly ordinary, and extremely important. I say it's extremely important in the sense that offers this opportunity to understand what happened to common humanity when we will build our reality of terror and lies. It's ordinary in the sense because I was their filming people who were there harvesting oil pond—which is in our margarine, palm oil, skin care and shampoo—and I realized everything we buy is produced in places where there has been mass violence or the perpetrators have won and where in their victory they have built in a fear to keep the workers who make everything so oppressed that they are unable to get the human cost of what we buy incorporated in the price tag that we pay.

Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place like Indonesia and I realized, this is the dark underbelly of our reality and it needs to be explored and exposed—not in the sense that it shows us something new that we didn’t know, but it shows us actually that we all know when we buy a t-shirt, it's made in a sweatshop, somewhere. Just as Anwar knows, what he did is wrong; the dark message of the film is that everybody already knows everything and the function of art is somehow not to tell us a new story that we haven’t heard before, but to address the painful aspects of reality that we are normally to afraid to acknowledge. (~

The year following Indonesia's 1965 coup saw the murder of more than a million "communists" (in fact, enemies of the military, including ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, union members). Anwar, head of a gang of killers called the Frog Squad, dispatched about 1,000 himself. He is the subject of The Act of Killing, a documentary that invites Anwar and his friends to dramatise their crimes, to boast about their starring roles in a genocide.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer began the film a decade ago by interviewing survivors. But when, at the suggestion of one of them, he turned his camera on the perpetrators, he found they were more than eager to reveal the history themselves. The killers simply adapted a story they had been telling each other for decades: that they were the ruling class, so their acts were heroic.

For gangsters like Anwar, Oppenheimer was offering the chance to make a "beautiful family film" – a celebration of their rise, inspired by the Hollywood movies they loved.

"They're desperately trying to run away from the reality of what they've done," says Oppenheimer, a 38-year-old Harvard graduate now based in Copenhagen. "You celebrate mass killing so you don't have to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer. You keep your victims oppressed so that they don't challenge your story. When you put the justification – the celebration – under a microscope, you don't necessarily see a lack of remorse, but you start to see an unravelling of the killers' conscience. So what appears to be the symptom of a lack of remorse is in fact the opposite. It's a sign of their humanity."

...It's this dissonance that makes the film so disturbing. It forces you to relate to a mass murderer.

"If we have any hope of learning how these things happen and thereby preventing them from happening again we have to discard this fantasy that there are monsters out there," says Oppenheimer, "that we just have to be vigilant and lock them up and maybe kill them or put them in camps.

"In calling someone a bad guy I reassure myself that I'm good. I elevate myself. I call it the 'Star Wars morality'. And unfortunately it underpins most of the stories we tell."      (

Here's the official synopsis (my  emphasis):
A film by Joshua Oppenheimer

Anwar Congo and his friends have been dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodelling cowboys. Their foray into filmmaking is being celebrated in the media and debated on television, even though Anwar Congo and his friends are mass murderers.

Medan, Indonesia. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.

The Act of Killing is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built. Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan génocidaires, Anwar and his friends have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own triumphant history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries. The Act of Killing is a journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators, offering insight into the minds of mass killers. And The Act of Killing is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.

A Love of Cinema. In their youth, Anwar and his friends spent their lives at the movies, for they were “movie theatre gangsters”: they controlled a black market in tickets, while using the cinema as a base of operations for more serious crimes. In 1965, the army recruited them to form death squads because they had a proven capacity for violence, and they hated the communists for boycotting American films – the most popular (and profitable) in the cinemas. Anwar and his friends were devoted fans of James Dean, John Wayne, and Victor Mature. They explicitly fashioned themselves and their methods of murder after their Hollywood idols. And coming out of the midnight show, they felt “just like gangsters who stepped off the screen”. In this heady mood, they strolled across the boulevard to their office and killed their nightly quota of prisoners. Borrowing his technique from a mafia movie, Anwar preferred to strangle his victims with wire.

In The Act of Killing, Anwar and his friends agree to tell us the story of the killings. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to star in the kind of films they most love from their days scalping tickets at the cinemas. We seize this opportunity to expose how a regime that was founded on crimes against humanity, yet has never been held accountable, would project itself into history.

And so we challenge Anwar and his friends to develop fiction scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres – gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.

Their fiction filmmaking process provides the film’s dramatic arc, and their film sets become safe spaces to challenge them about what they did. Some of Anwar’s friends realize that the killings were wrong. Others worry about the consequence of the story on their public image. Younger members of the paramilitary movement argue that they should boast about the horror of the massacres, because their terrifying and threatening force is the basis of their power today. As opinions diverge, the atmosphere on set grows tense. The edifice of genocide as a “patriotic struggle”, with Anwar and his friends as its heroes, begins to sway and crack.

Most dramatically, the filmmaking process catalyzes an unexpected emotional journey for Anwar, from arrogance to regret as he confronts, for the first time in his life, the full implications of what he’s done. As Anwar’s fragile conscience is threatened by the pressure to remain a hero, The Act of Killing presents a gripping conflict between moral imagination and moral catastrophe.

Lots of reviews & discussion out there, most of which I haven't had time to read. So some links:
Oppenheimer wikipedia
movie wikipedia
movie site
rottentomatoes 98%, 89 reviews
‘The Act of Killing’ IS the Art of Documentary Filmmaking
Also tonight:

John Lewis
Author, March Book One
(Trailer via

reviews at B&N, booklist.
interview at kindle post
Lots of assorted publicity stuff at Top Shelf

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