Entertainment & Arts

Act of Killing director says he can't go back to Indonesia

Joshua Oppenheimer with his Bafta Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Joshua Oppenheimer won a Bafta for The Act of Killing

The director of the hard-hitting documentary The Act of Killing says it isn't safe for him to return to Indonesia after the release of his film.

Joshua Oppenheimer spent years filming accounts of mass killings in the country that took place in the 1960s.

His film won the Bafta award for best documentary on Sunday.

"I would love to be able to go back," Oppenheimer told the BBC in an interview before the ceremony.

"The film is, in a way, my love letter to Indonesia. At the same time one of the saddest things for me about releasing the film is that I can't safely go back now."

The Act of Killing has shocked audiences around the world with its first-hand accounts of the murder and torture of alleged Communists in 1965-66.

The documentary tells the story from the perspective of the unrepentant killers.

But what makes it extraordinary is that they are invited to re-enact their murders in the style of their favourite American movies.

During his Bafta speech on Sunday, Oppenheimer dedicated the award to his anonymous Indonesian crew and his co-director who had "risked his safety knowing that he could not stand with me to accept this award until there is major change in Indonesia".

The Act of Killing is also a front-runner to win an Oscar on 2 March.

Its Academy Award nomination last month prompted an Indonesian government official to say the country had been portrayed as "a cruel and lawless nation".

The Jakarta Globe quoted Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential spokesman for foreign affairs, as saying: "The film portrayed Indonesia as backwards, as in the 1960s. That is not appropriate, not fitting. It must be remembered [that] Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed."

Image copyright Dogwoof
Image caption Anwar Congo (right) being made up ahead of filming a scene for The Act of Killing

At the Baftas, Oppenheimer said the government's response had been "inadequate", but acknowledged it marked a change in the official line on the killings.

"Until that moment the government has maintained the genocide was something heroic and to be celebrated," he said.

The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo, one of a group of former black market gangsters who operated out of cinemas in Medan, Northern Sumatra.

Anwar was the 41st perpetrator that Oppenheimer interviewed. "I lingered on him because I felt his pain was close to the surface," the Texan-born director said.

Recruited by the army in 1965, Congo's gang became a death squad who fashioned their murder methods after their Hollywood idols.

In the film Congo demonstrates how he preferred to strangle his victims with wire, taking inspiration from a mafia movie.

Speaking to the BBC immediately after his Bafta win, Oppenheimer said he would contact Congo to tell him the news.

"We've been in touch every month. I know he's wishing the film the best at the Academy Awards, and he will be moved to hear that we've won a Bafta."

The full BBC interview with Joshua Oppenheimer will be published on Thursday in the 2014 Oscar diary.

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