A documentary film about the massacre of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members in North Sumatra in 1965 has created a stir after its recent screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious and popular film events.
The film, titled The Act of Killing and directed by American Joshua Oppenheimer, received effusive praise from Werner Herzog, one of the world’s foremost documentary filmmakers.
“I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade.” The film was, Herzog said, as reported by CNN, “unprecedented in the history of cinema”.
The film’s subject-actors have not been so enthusiastic. They claim that the 149-minute film was fictional and was not intended for public viewing.
The documentary involves reenactments of the events purported to have taken place in the aftermath of the abortive coup in 1965.
One of the film’s subjects, Anwar Congo, plays himself. In the film, Anwar and his friends told how they were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie tickets on the black market to death squad leaders.
The film depicts the men working with Army soldiers in the bloody purge that saw hundreds of thousands communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals killed in less than a year.
In the film, Anwar portrayed as an executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, killing hundreds of people with his own hands. In one scene, Anwar shows how to strangle an suspected communist with a wire.
Anwar said that he was surprised to learn the title of the film had been changed. According to Anwar, who was born in the 1940s, the film was shot in North Sumatra and was originally titled Arsan dan Aminah (Arsan and Aminah).
He portrayed Arsan, who falls in love with Aminah, a member of the Gerwani, the PKI women’s movement, and the daughter of a PKI member.
Anwar said he was upset with his portrayal as a villain who crushed the PKI in North Sumatra. “If I knew this would happen, I wouldn’t have acted in the film.”
Another actor, Sakhyan Asmara, who portrayed a Pemuda Pancasila member, said that the film was not made for public exhibition.
“The script has gone through a lot of changes. The title is very controversial and inappropriate for the original script,” Sakhyan said in Medan.
Sakhyan said that Oppenheimer told him that he wanted to study the Pemuda Pancasila youth organization for a doctorate.
Sakhyan, currently a staff expert for Youth and Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng, said that several phone calls and text messages he sent to Oppenheimer were not answered. He planned to sue Oppenheimer unless the director clarifies why the film was screened at Toronto, Sakhyan said.
Oppenheimer said in a statement posted to the film’s website that Anwar and his friends had agreed to tell him the story of the killings.
“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.”
“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.”
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