This week, for the first time ever, an Indonesian film will be nominated for an Academy Award.
The documentary The Act of Killing (TAoK) portrays in raw, chilling detail some of the most shameless perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 anti-communist genocide as they joyfully and boastfully recreate for the camera their darkest deeds.
In an op-ed I published about the film in the Wall Street Journal just over a year ago, I predicted: “The documentary will hit nearly every top international film festival early next year. An Oscar nomination is likely, which means Indonesia is about to gain notoriety for the wrong reasons.”
This forecast has come true, and it is important to fully appreciate the prominence, indeed dominance, that TAoK has enjoyed in the film world since. It has been screened at 120 international festivals, including nearly every top-tier event (Telluride, Toronto, Berlin, SXSW and many others.)
It has won 35 awards, including many of the world’s most coveted film prizes: Berlinale, European Film Award, Gotham, Puma Impact, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and two BAFTA nominations.
Film legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have thrown themselves passionately behind TAoK, and it scores a whopping 96 percent on internet movie standard-bearer Rotten Tomatoes.com.
TAoK’s director Joshua Oppenheimer was even a guest on the hit TV program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, usually a hot seat for A-list stars, not obscure documentary directors.
In recent weeks TAoK made nearly every Best of 2013 movie list that matters, including The Guardian, New York Times, Indiewire, and LA Weekly. It was often listed not just as the year’s top documentary, but as the year’s top film in any category.
This sort of renown is unprecedented for a non-fiction movie, and even more unusual given that TAoK had everything working against it: It’s abnormally long (two hours 39 minutes) and it’s a slow-moving political documentary in a foreign language about an event nearly 50 years ago in a country most international viewers have barely heard of.
In other words, TAoK had all the ingredients to go totally unnoticed. Despite these handicaps, it has become one of the most critically acclaimed films of our time.
The attention will only intensify in the lead-up to the Oscars in early March, and Indonesia will be in the spotlight like never before.
What has the Indonesian government’s reaction been? Silence. Government officials have no doubt seen the film, but haven’t reacted publicly. Contrary to the film’s important underlying message — that historical truths must be addressed for the sake of justice — Indonesia’s government seems content to bury its head in the sand. This is a great shame.
The disgrace surrounding Indonesia’s 1965 genocide isn’t that the perpetrators have gone unpunished: anyone familiar with Indonesia’s patronage politics knows how unlikely it is that killers from 1965 will ever be investigated and brought to justice.
The real outrage — and surely of far greater pain to the victims — is that the 1965 genocide hasn’t even been acknowledged. To make matters worse, the official narrative in Indonesia surrounding the events of 1965 remains one of blatant lies and historical distortions.
Why does Indonesia’s reaction to TAoK even matter? The country, now just months from crucial parliamentary and presidential elections, is at one of its most fragile moral crossroads in decades.
The political arena will be contested by morally corrupt figures with direct ties to those involved in 1965, and at least one candidate who personally embodies that legacy of political violence.
But it will also be contested by an enlightened few with a vision of Indonesia governed through honesty, openness and accountability.
There is reason to be optimistic: For the first time since reformasi, Indonesia is seeing the emergence of a new generation of energetic, people-focused leaders bent on battling corruption and entrenched interests.
Jakarta’s Governor Joko Widodo and his deputy Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama are the most obvious examples. But we can also look to figures like Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu and former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati as influential leaders who won’t settle for business as usual.
Progressive figures like Anies Baswedan and Gita Wirjawan are similarly emerging as potential leaders of the future. Many of these “good guys” weren’t even part of the political landscape five years ago.
So Indonesia faces a clear choice: It can slide deeper into the very real landscape of fear and impunity portrayed in TAoK, or it can treat the film as a wake-up call and insist at the polls on the kind of enlightened, honest leadership it deserves.
Oppenheimer has handed a massive gift to Indonesia in the form of some hard medicine to heal its historical wounds and to right some of its greatest wrongs.
In October, Oppenheimer and his team made TAoK available for free download to anyone in Indonesia. Its people have begun confronting the truth through this important film. Now the government must decide whether to be on the right side of history by embracing truth and justice, or continue burying its head in the sand.
The idea of a government embracing and even promoting a film that criticizes its country is not as unlikely as it sounds. Israel, for instance, produces dozens of hard-hitting movies each year that blatantly expose and criticize institutionalized injustice.
Many of these films are not only promoted overseas by the Israeli government, but produced with government funding. This is also true of many films produced in the US with taxpayer money. It’s a huge part what art is supposed to do anywhere — to serve as introspection, a social conscience, a devil’s advocate.
Some may say Indonesia isn’t ready for this kind of introspection. This is nonsense. The country is full of thoughtful, honest, forward-looking citizens comfortable with the world around them and wanting nothing more than to be part of a global society. To suggest they need to be “protected” from controversy or truth is utterly condescending. The Indonesian government needs to become a lot better at trusting the Indonesian people.
Rather than being embarrassed by TAoK, Indonesia’s government should champion this film. It should welcome it into theaters and boldly promote TAoK as an important educational tool to compensate for decades of indoctrinating its nation’s students with the infamous propaganda film G30SPKI.
Endorsing TAoK would be a sign of a confident, progressive government intent on breaking away from a culture of fear, lies and impunity.
Though Oppenheimer won’t be visiting our shores for a while, for fear of reprisals by vigilante groups implicated in TAoK, he isn’t going away any time soon.
Oppenheimer and his Indonesian codirector Anonymous are now editing their follow-up film. It’s also about the 1965 genocide, but this time from the perspective of the survivors. Its title points poignantly and shamefully at how Indonesia’s government has chosen thus far to ignore 1965: The Look of Silence.
The writer is the director of JALANAN, a new feature-length documentary about Indonesia seen through the lives of three Jakarta street musicians, and author of the urban pop culture book Jakarta Inside Out.
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