The Act of Killing: My family lived through it

17 Posted by - February 28, 2014 - Features, Reviews, Screen

Editor’s note: Christine Phang has recently written a contextual analysis of the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing. After we read her essay we asked her to give us her opinion on the recent attacks on the film that have been levied by BBC honcho Nick Fraser. Fraser is extremely influential in the documentary world, and his strange one-man war against this remarkable film calls for a response, this time from someone closer to the story, someone whose family lived through the genocide.

My name is Christine Phang, I am currently studying film at Concordia University in Montreal. I was born and raised in Canada, and my family is ethnically Chinese. My parents immigrated to Canada in 1978, but were born and raised in Indonesia as the seventh generation in a lineage of Chinese immigrants.

Although I myself have never lived in Indonesia, my parents and grandparents have experienced the traumas of the 1965 genocide, and these stories are very important to me.

I am grateful that no members of my family have been direct victims of violence or murder, but I know the fear resides in them. I recently discovered that my father still occasionally encounters the same recurring nightmare; four to five artillery-armed squad men doing routine house checks, my father burning books and anything containing Chinese writing (my grandfather was a teacher, so this act had even more significance), his family huddling together and praying for safety…

Because they knew at any time the man of the household could easily be detained and killed. My father only experiences this in his sleep now, but at one time it was a reality, the kind of harrowing reality that is acted out in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Robert Redford and Nick Fraser (courtesy of The Guardian)

Robert Redford and Nick Fraser (courtesy of The Guardian)

BBC Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser has recently written a Guardian article expressing his discontent with The Act of Killing. While I understand where his concerns come from, I believe Fraser shows a lack of consideration on one important aspect of this film: context. His oversight, in turn, distorts the intent of the film and ultimately ignores the impact it has made.

A primary problem Fraser has with The Act of Killing is its focus on the perpetrators, and the privilege Oppenheimer gives them to recreate the horrific actions once executed in the past.

I think it is most important to realize that the purpose here was not to have the killers recreate these scenes as some sort of exercise in glorification, rather it is more appropriate to view the reenactments as tools to tap into the reflective consciousness to which they have seemingly become impervious.

The fact that the perpetrators are the stars of film does not mean they are celebrated subjects, a fact, judging from the majority of global reaction to the film, to be common sense.

In fact, focusing on the squad members allows them to admit on camera their cruelty and corruption from their own mouths, an ugly narrative that would otherwise continue to be ignored.

I see Fraser’s point when he says these surreal scenes do not supply much information on the history of the 1965 killings, however they were acted out not simply for factual purposes – but were intended to reveal an emotional transmutation experienced by human beings who have killed thousands of innocent people, and this approach does not deter the progressive transformative power of the film in any way.

Fraser also compares The Act of Killing to films that might feature aging Nazis in rural Argentina in the 1950s, but I find this correlation utterly irrelevant.

oppenheimerThe difference is that as horrendous as the Holocaust was, it has ended and been deemed criminal, the perpetrators have been placed on trial and punished, and the incident is recognized globally as genocide.

The Indonesian genocide does not share these same characteristics: the killers enjoy impunity and continue to govern the country to this day; Indonesians are still being fed lies that continue to fortify the military regime’s power, and details of the 1965 atrocities are certainly unheard of to many people.

Unabashedly shown in the film, the Indonesian death squad members remain proud and flaunt the crimes they have committed. Perhaps if Fraser could find a group of Nazis who are not in fearful withdrawal and are currently governing in Germany, Fraser’s would be a more fair comparison.

More importantly however, I believe that Fraser fails to acknowledge the change The Act of Killing is creating, which in the end is the most significant thing the film can do.

We have to remember that this film is the first to confront an issue that has been so neatly tucked away for generations. It exposes a genocide that many outside of Indonesia are completely oblivious to. Fraser seems to miss the immensely positive impact the film has had in Indonesia; for the first time in history the legitimacy of those in power is being readdressed and questioned in the open.

It is ignorant to neglect the fact that Indonesians have never experienced the type of truth The Act of Killing brings forth. The Western world often seems to forget that other countries may not possess the freedom we are privileged with. I believe these are all important conditions to consider when forming an opinion about this film, and certainly context is important when judging any documentary.

All that said, in the end, the opinions of Western critics and myself do not matter. What matters is what the film does for Indonesians. If it is the stepping-stone to justice and reconciliation, if it has introduced historical rectification to a country so repressed, then it is a positive thing worthy of support.

To this day, the textbooks of schoolchildren in Indonesia still proclaim the evils of communism and the heroic actions of Suharto’s raids. If the film can act as a stimulant for younger generations to start investigating the integrity of the past, this will be an momentous leap forward to breaking the chains of authoritarianism.

Both my parents have seen The Act of Killing. They have a lot of hope in this film, and as Indonesians they are amazed and proud that the issue finally has a voice.

If those who have been personally affected by the genocide see the film as innovative and productive, then surely it has succeeded.

Read Christine Phang’s analysis of The Act of Killing.

Christine Phang studies film at Concordia University in Montreal. When her eyes start to burn from writing or watching films, this Vancouver-born wandering soul can be found juicing, enjoying the view from a mountain, or reading about the neurobiology of crows. Among other things, she finds comfort in photography, musical experiences, wildlife, and her grandmother’s 6-hour Javanese stew.

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