Deconstructing a genocide

PROFILE. Depicting the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 from the point of view of the perpetrators, "The Act of Killing" has caused an uproar in Indonesia and the West. "If you want to understand where genocide comes from, you have to find out what drives the perpetrators," says Signe Byrge Sørensen, the film's Danish producer.

Producer Signe Byrge Sørensen was attending a seminar at the CPH:DOX festival in 2007 when a sequence from a work-in-progress documentary project made her eyes go wide: two perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide 1965-66 are recreating a scene by a river in a rural area outside Medan. One is playing the victim, the other the executioner. The former drags the latter down to the river, demonstrating how, in this very place, he used to behead Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals and dump their bodies in the water. He then asks the soundman to take a picture of him and his fellow criminal as they flash the victory sign.

"In our part of the world, in the mid-'60s, it was welcome news that an Asian country was taking care of its communists themselves."

"In our part of the world, in the mid-'60s, it was welcome news that an Asian country was taking care of its communists themselves."

"The scene provoked me violently," Byrge Sørensen says. "It was very bestial, and the perpetrator was obviously proud of what he had done. I got extremely curious to hear the whole story – to find out who the people were who shot the footage and how they got the killers to talk so openly about everything."

The Danish producer went straight home and called up the film's American director, Joshua Oppenheimer, who was filming in Indonesia, and asked him if he needed a producer. As a matter of fact, he could use professional assistance to structure and finance his ambitious documentary about the Indonesian genocide. Oppenheimer and the rest of what was then a filmmakers collective had thousands of hours of footage and a huge archive of materials mapping out what had taken place in the country. And Oppenheimer felt he had only just scratched the surface.

A global outlook matters

In the film, Oppenheimer challenges former leaders of death patrols, who today are celebrated as heroes, to recreate their roles in the genocide. We watch the criminals stage the killings in cinematic scenes inspired by American gangster movies. We watch them play all the roles themselves and their reactions afterwards when they watch the scenes. In that regard, "The Act of Killing" is typical of the kind of film Byrge Sørensen is attracted to – intellectual and political documentaries of an international bent. Films with opinions. Films that provoke and experiment with the cinematic vocabulary and whose content ask something of the audience, intellectually and emotionally.

"Josh had a very clear vision, aesthetically, politically and content-wise, and he was already busy developing when I came aboard. At the time, it was financed as an academic project and my main job was to find a shape for the film so that it could reach a wide audience," Byrge Sørensen says.

Byrge Sørensen studied international development and communication at Roskilde University in Denmark and later worked for the production company SPOR Media, which focuses on cultural and social conditions in developing countries. Of course, that doesn't mean she'll agree to anything "as long as it's about Africa", but international projects do attract her.

"It's important to have a global outlook. I'm interested in communicating political issues from around the world to Western audiences." 

Many versions of the same story

One thing is being interested in the world. Another is making yourself the mouthpiece of mass murderers. Why give them a voice?

"It was never Josh's nor my intention to make a film that give them a pulpit," Byrge Sørensen says. "But if you want to understand where genocide comes from and prevent it from happening again, you have to find out what drives the perpetrators. By letting them speak and recreating scenes in their versions of events, Josh is documenting how the perpetrators of this genocide think."

In large parts of the film, the perpetrators seem completely twisted and unscrupulous, bragging about their participation in a brutal genocide and demonstrating the most effective way of strangling someone with a steel wire. How did the director get them to talk so openly about what they had done?

"Josh had built up very good relationships with these people. He listened to them without judging. When I came along on shoot, I, too, concentrated on being open and present and held off dealing with my own feelings until I got back home. I'm sure one of Anwar's (Anwar Congo, the film's main character, ed.) reasons for being in the film is that he gets an opportunity to talk about his nightmares. He needed that because, needless to say, killing another human being affects you, and the point is that it was people who committed these atrocities, not monsters," Byrge Sørensen says.

"It's interesting that, in an Indonesian context, you can say straight out that you intend to tell the story of what happened in 1965-66. Only, it's a story that's understood in many different ways." Indonesia has never had a reckoning with its bloody past. After 1966, a military regime ruled the country for 31 years and it had no interest in seeing anyone who helped them come into power being charged with murder.

"The winners write the laws and they write history. The story that the communists were evil and it was good that they were killed hasn't really been contested. Moreover, in our part of the world, in the mid-'60s, as the Vietnam War was raging, it was welcome news that an Asian country was taking care of its communists themselves without our intervention," Byrge Sørensen says.

Hope for the future of Indonesia

Byrge Sørensen is delighted that the film has sparked debate in the US over Guantanamo, torture and impunity, and she's especially delighted at the powerful reactions the film has elicited in Indonesia. The Indonesian Tempo magazine put out a special issue about the genocide, and the film is still being discussed in both the Indonesian and the English-language press in the country. The national human rights commission has released a report about the 1965-66 killings which it has been working on for four years that the government has ignored until now. Byrge Sørensen hopes that the current discussion will change all that.

"We hope the film can be used as a catalyst for a truth and reconciliation process, that there will be open discussion and that the general discourse will change, so that the genocide is not something to brag about. And we hope it will happen peacefully".