I went last night to the ICA in London to see The Act of Killing, the much-celebrated documentary film that centres on a group of Pemuda Pancasila thugs who were responsible for killing communists in 1965-1966 in Medan and the surrounding plantation belt. This was the director's cut, which clocks in at 2 hours 40 minutes, and the film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer was present after for a q&a. Tapol and other human rights organisations were also around to solicit signatures, specifically for a minta maaf campaign which calls upon SBY to apologise officially for the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia, which left between 500,000 and 1.5 million PKI and suspected communists dead, and many more imprisoned without trial.
Oppenheimer said before the film that he was not going to say 'enjoy the film.' Indeed, he said this twice. He did add though that it was okay to laugh, and that audiences in Indonesia laugh at moments too. I didn't enjoy the film, though I did laugh out loud a few times, and smiled many more times, as Anwar Congo and his friends Herman and Ari made their film which re-presents their roles in the 65-66 killings. The experience was chilling, brutal, deeply moving.
The director has a bio not too dissimilar from my own - he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, got a PhD from Central St Martins with a thesis which comprises an earlier documentary about trade union activists in North Sumatra called The Globalization Tapes (available on youtube), some early material collected towards The Act of Killing and a long written thesis (Show of Force, available to download free of charge at http://ethos.bl.uk). The film itself was funded in part by an AHRC grant -- the largest grant the AHRC has given to an Indonesian research project- and Oppenheimer continued to be based in London after his PhD until very recently as a senior research fellow at the University of Westminster. We share a common set of theoretical and areal references -- and in his after-show q&a he cited Indonesian cultural theorists Ariel Heryanto. He was highly loquacious and articulate in his comments, and showed deep respect for his Indonesian collaborators. (Most of whom who could not be credited for safety reasons and are listed as anonymous.) Oppenheimer said it was not safe for him now to go to Indonesia - and when Anwar saw the film for the first time he could only watch it with him via Skype. I felt for Oppenheimer as clearly he remains drawn to the country, and wishes to contribute to Indonesia (indeed, he considers the film to be an Indonesian film due to the huge amount of participation of Indonesians in it).
So it was hard for me not empathize with the film-maker and imagine what it would have been like for me to be in the company of these brutal and largely unrepentant killers for the long time it took to make the film (nearly 10 years, with over 1200 hours of footage collected). I shared also a set of cultural references with the killers themselves, as well. These were thugs who worked as preman bioskop in Medan in the early 1960s, scalping tickets-- and the major reason they cited for their dislike of the PKI was that the PKI lobbied successfully in getting the flow of Hollywood films reduced, which cut into their income as ticket scalpers. They sung popular songs of their youth like Halo, Halo Bandung and Malam Minggu Nonton Bioskop; talked about their admiration for American film stars; and did an absolutely chilling re-enactment of the murder of a victim in film noire style in a Medan office that had indeed been used for killing. (Oppenheimer said that for him the murder by stabbing of a teddy bear, representing the child of a Chinese man, was the most disturbing moment in the whole film.) One of the main characters, a cross-dresser named Herman, was a leading actor in an all-male Pemuda Pancasila theatre group that had disbanded some time before Oppenheimer began filming. (The director said that if it was still around he certainly would have wanted to film it.)
I could go on about this film at some length as it touches on so many things I am interested in -- Indonesia, performance, re-enactment, fantasy, cross-cultural communication, transnationalism. It is something I will need to see again, I think, and would like to teach as well. The DVD is due to come out in November 2013.