‘The Act of Killing’ tipped for Indonesia’s first Oscar

The Act of Killing, the widely acclaimed film about the nation’s bloody communist purges between 1965 and 1968, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

It is the first time that an Indonesian movie will be voted upon by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for filmmaking’s highest accolade: An Oscar.

The film’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, who made the film over eight years with Indonesian collaborators who remain anonymous, hoped the nomination would prompt public action as the 2014 election approached.

“With leading candidates personally responsible for crimes against humanity, and glorifying a history of genocide to build a climate of fear, there is a very real risk that the country will backslide toward military dictatorship,” Oppenheimer said in a press statement.

“We hope that this nomination will put the film, and the issues of impunity that it raises, on the front pages of Indonesian newspapers — at a time when Indonesians must urgently debate how impunity for mass murder has led to a moral vacuum of fear, corruption and thuggery,” Oppenheimer said in a media release.

He also gave credit to the survivors of the 1965 purges, “who courageously defied army threats to tell us their stories, and inspired us to make this film” and to his anonymous Indonesian crew and co-director.

The documentary follows Anwar Congo and his colleagues, who claim in the film to have killed an untold number of alleged communists in North Sumatra.

What appears on screen is amazing and chilling: At Oppenheimer’s encouragement, the men reenact scene after scene of horrific violence within the framework of a movie within a movie.

Killing has received acclaim inside and outside the country since it began screening — privately in Indonesia, publicly overseas — in 2012.

It has been named the best documentary, if not the best film, of the year, by critics around the world and is the fifth highest rated film according to a survey of 153 “top-ten” lists conducted by Movie City News.

Local author Daniel Ziv, recently awarded top honors at the Busan film festival for Jalanan, said Killing offered a raw and provocative counter-narrative of what happened in Indonesia during the birth of the New Order.

“It also brilliantly reinvents the language of documentary storytelling, which a film does maybe once in a generation,” Ziv told The Jakarta Post on Friday. “It’s a devastating work of art that Indonesia will hopefully embrace for the sake of its own historical reckoning.”

Hilmar Farid, a historian and human rights activist, said that the slaughter of suspected members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was part of the nation’s “hidden history” — unlike the better known deeds of Adolf Hitler
or Pol Pot.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has said it has evidence that government officials were involved in the systematic and widespread killing and persecution of PKI members and alleged sympathizers in the aftermath of the abortive coup in 1965.

According to Komnas HAM, upward of one million people were victims of extra-judicial killings, imprisonment or exile.

“Killing is not the first movie about the terrible event, but it is by far the most significant for being able to tell the story from the perspective of the executioners,” Hilmar said on Friday. “The Oscar nomination can be expected to bring more international attention to the killings.”

The Oscars awards ceremony will be held on March 2.

Nominees for Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing
• Directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen

Cutie and the Boxer
• Directors Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher

Dirty Wars
• Directors Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill

The Square
• Directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer

20 Feet from Stardom
• Nominees to be determined