10 March 2014

Oscar-nominated documentary studies boastful assassins

Over the weekend, I watched the movie "The Act of Killing", which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. It had been recommended by a human rights colleague, and I can see why it was nominated - and recommended.

This fast-moving two-hour documentary centers around a genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s, in which a million or more artists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese were assassinated by government-sanctioned death squads in an effort to "exterminate" all "communists". It's worth noting that the ruling military regime at the time - along with its anti-communist effort - was proactively supported by the U.S. government.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent several years in Indonesia researching the genocide. In the process, he met Anwar Congo, a death squad leader who had personally killed as many as 1,000 alleged communists. Congo and his fellow assassins were proud, even boastful, of their actions. And so Oppenheimer ingeniously decided to allow the killers to tell their own stories on film. The result is this movie.

It's disturbing in that the killers who star in the movie are proud of their actions, and eager to share the gruesome details. While making "their" movie, they boastfully reenact various killings in order to show us just how clever and brutal they were.

One assassin, Anwar Congo's old friend, explains - or, rather, justifies - why he feels no guilt:

"'War crimes' are defined by the winners. I'm a winner. So I can make my own definition."
The concept of human rights is held in disdain in this culture, and is ridiculed. And the killers are regarded as heroes in their country.

Will this filmmaking exercise cause any of the killers to finally recognize and confront the wrongness of their actions? Watch the movie and then let me know if you think so.

Meanwhile, check out this great interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer on Democracy Now - here.

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