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When Killers Played Victims

In response to:

The Violent Mysteries of Indonesia from the October 22, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

I was honored by Ian Buruma’s insightful reflection on my films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence [NYR, October 22]. However, Mr. Buruma’s review contains factual errors about the production that I feel should be addressed. Mr. Buruma writes, regarding The Act of Killing’s dramatization of the massacre of villagers at Kampung Kolam, North Sumatra:

In another brutal reenactment for the cameras, a village is raided, with actual villagers playing the victims of rape and cutthroat killings. Children can’t stop weeping once the filming is over.

I would never have contemplated creating this scene in the way Mr. Buruma imagines. I would never ask villagers to act in a dramatization of a massacre featuring—and directed by—the actual perpetrators.

The “villagers” are perpetrators and members of their immediate families. The “village” is a film set, and the weeping children were auditioned for their ability to cry on cue. (Children unable to cry were placed farther from the cameras, so that their giggling would be obscured by bonfires arranged in the foreground.) None of the children was told that the scene is based on actual atrocities carried out by their grandparents. Some children would continue to cry after we called “cut,” but this is not unusual in situations where child actors should cry, and they were immediately comforted by their families and the film crew.

Mr. Buruma describes a woman who appears on the verge of fainting. She is the wife of death squad leader Ali Usman, whom we see a few minutes earlier on an Indonesian state television talk show threatening, “God hates the Communists. There will be no reconciliation.” Mr. Usman’s wife would not say she fainted, but rather was kesurupan, or possessed. The paramilitary members whispering prayers in her ears are, in fact, conducting a quiet exorcism.

We had a rule that survivors should not participate in The Act of Killing. We were concerned, above all, for their safety: survivors could become easy targets of the perpetrators’ anger after the film’s release. We discovered later that one of the paramilitary leaders, Mr. Suryono, was also a survivor, in the sense that his stepfather had been killed. Yet Mr. Suryono’s participation was inadvertent: a second cameraperson not fluent in Indonesian filmed Mr. Suryono telling his stepfather’s story, and I became aware of the story only months later, while editing. Elsewhere in the film, we see Chinese shopkeepers being extorted by paramilitary leaders. I reimbursed each shopkeeper after filming, and explained that our purpose in filming was to expose the perpetrators’ crimes.

These may seem like minor clarifications, but for a filmmaker they are fundamental—examples of how we must find ways of working ethically in difficult circumstances, even when there may be no ethically perfect solution. Having spent so many years trying to expose mechanisms of fear and violence, the last thing I’d want is to replicate that violence in my own film production. We therefore did whatever we could to ensure that every scene was a safe space for all participants—even though all of us, in confronting such painful aspects of human experience, were necessarily pushed beyond our comfort zones.

Once again, I am grateful for Mr. Buruma’s generous review.

Joshua Oppenheimer
Copenhagen, Denmark