“The Act of Killing” documentary challenges history, reality, genocide

How we remember history and the violence within it is one of the great challenges of our age. From the Holocaust to Cambodia and Rwanda to Palestine, we are all haunted by holding power to account.

Last night I watched one of the most remarkable documentaries I’ve ever seen, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing:

The film is about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, where between 1.5 and 2.5 million people were massacred by a US (and Australian) backed regime with the assistance of death squads. What makes this film so stunning is that the perpetrators are today viewed as heroes in Indonesia, boast of their crimes and re-enact scenes from the time.

What makes the documentary so surreal, disturbing, sad, infuriating, damn strange and compelling are the ways in which Oppenheimer (here talking about his Jewish background, why he knows Israel was born through ethnic cleansing and the lessons we all must take from history) lets the characters speak for themselves and reveal their moral decay.

Here’s two of the film’s executive producers, legendary film-makers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, talking to Vice:

Here’s Oppenheimer in an extensive interview on Democracy Now! explaining his techniques and motives:

This film isn’t just about history and how we remember it. It’s about not forgetting, the trauma still today in the world’s biggest Muslim state (and the ongoing denial) and the face of human cruelty that has barely dimmed decades after the crimes were committed. And yet attitudes do change, as long as there are people to challenge a culture of ignoring what’s in front of us all the time.

One of the most essential works of art I’ve seen in years.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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