Sally Feldman - The art of impact

A film about Indonesian genocide has impact in spades, says Sally Feldman

August 15, 2013

When you’re killing you must take care not to get blood all over the place. That’s why you should ideally wear dark-coloured clothes and garrotte your victims with wire rather than slitting their throats with a knife. These are just a few of the tips offered by hired murderer Anwar Congo in the documentary The Act of Killing, released at cinemas recently to a rapturous reception.

Anwar Congo is one of a group of unrepentant former members of an Indonesian death squad who in The Act of Killing were challenged to re-enact some of their many murders in the style of the American movies they love. But they went rather further. Proudly describing themselves as gangsters, they boast to the camera that they were crueller and more sadistic than the movies.

Anwar, the star of the film, not only cheerfully demonstrates how to strangle a blindfolded victim with wire but also when to offer water and a cigarette to a man you are torturing and when to resume the treatment after nearly drowning him. During the genocide, which took place in 1965 after a military coup, Anwar killed well over 1,000 people. Yet he and his fellow mobsters have never been brought to trial; indeed, they are still regarded by many as heroes in the Indonesian clampdown against communism, when more than a million people died and many more were arrested and imprisoned – mostly on invented charges.

While the film has already garnered a galaxy of prizes and awards, and is tipped for an Oscar, there’s a side to its story that has been largely ignored: it was made by a university research fellow and seed-funded by the university and with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

It all began nine years ago when a young PhD student, Joshua Oppenheimer, attended a conference marking the work of the French documentary-maker Jean Rouch. Rouch had pioneered the technique of creating re-enactments in his anthropological films, and the conference in his honour had been organised by one of his disciples, Joram ten Brink, professor of film at the University of Westminster.

Oppenheimer approached Ten Brink with rushes of scenes he had filmed in Indonesia using this technique. Ten Brink encouraged him to apply for a postdoctoral position so that under his supervision he could continue to work on the film. The film was initially funded by the university itself; then the following year it won a substantial AHRC grant, later to be supplemented by funding from various European media organisations and broadcasters.

The film’s effectiveness in raising awareness, in uncovering hidden atrocities and exposing who committed them, could be regarded as almost a definition of that elusive concept, ‘impact’

But filming was not straightforward and was fraught with real danger. None of the survivors of the massacres was prepared to speak to Oppenheimer for fear of death. Indeed, at one point during the making of the work, while I was dean of Westminster’s School of Media, Arts and Design, I was approached by the Indonesian embassy. They’d heard that a film was being made and they wanted to see it. I was painstakingly careful in my refusal. Josh had not yet completed the filming and I was concerned about the risks he was taking whenever he went back.

But the people who took part were surprisingly welcoming. Why? The perpetrators had agreed to participate when Oppenheimer persuaded them that this was a chance to tell their own story. He trained them in scripting, gave them cameras to film themselves. At last, they had the opportunity to become real movie stars like their heroes: John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino.

The result is a deeply disturbing account that raises troubling questions not just about the appalling events it documents but about the techniques of the film itself. How “true” can a re-enactment be? Did such a treatment run the risk of glorifying the killers? And how far were they inspired and motivated by the violence they’d ingested from Hollywood? These are by any standard academic questions, readily justifying the description of the film as research by practice.

And then came its astonishing success – practically unknown for a work created in a university. Even more unusually, the producers shrewdly hired a sales agent to distribute it. After it appeared at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last year, and then in Toronto, the film started to attract reviews by mainstream newspapers. And it caught the notice of an Indonesian magazine called Tempo, which courageously devoted a whole issue to The Act of Killing, and also managed to interview some of the survivors.

This was the first time since the genocide that it was being openly debated; so there was a growing demand for the film to be shown in Indonesia. But if it had gone to the censor who regulates all cinema and television screenings in the country, it would have been banned. So instead, a network of human rights activists began to send it around to universities, bookshops, arts centres, victim support groups. As of now, there have been more than 600 viewings in Indonesia. And that’s not counting the black market copies changing hands in Jakarta’s street markets and back rooms – to the delight of the production team.

As universities prepare their submissions for the coming research excellence framework, they might well reflect on the story of The Act of Killing. Its effectiveness in raising awareness, in uncovering hidden atrocities and exposing those who committed them, could be regarded as a beacon – almost a definition of that elusive concept, “impact”.

On the other hand it is a product so unique, its content and its effects so exceptional, that it could as easily be used to show how impossible it is to apply that slippery measure to works of art in any meaningful way.

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