Two films about Indonesia have won prizes in the One World Human Rights Documentary Film Festival- The Act of Killing (Winner: Best Film) and Where Heaven Meets Hell (Václav Havel Jury Special Mention). I loved both films and I can’t think of a more deserving winner for Best Film- after the screening at Lucerna, I was speechless. As a 5 year-old I was taken on holidays to Indonesia, as my father was working there at the time, and I have very vivid, very lovely memories of the country and all the people we met there. Back then (obviously), and since (unfortunately), I hadn’t thought much about the geography and political history of Indonesia, and both of these films were eye-opening and incredibly engaging on these subjects.
Sasha Friedlander’s Where Heaven Meets Hell (2012) is a visually stunning and tenderly intimate film which portrays the lives of four sulphur miners in East Java’s Kawah ljen volcano. The work of mining the ‘non-toxic’ sulphur (as the volcano owner claims on film) is physically gruelling and very dangerous, and the small pay earned by the miners goes to looking after their families and their children’s school fees. The film really highlights the crucial importance of education as a means of breaking free of poverty, and is a beautiful, humane and informative portrait of family life and work in this part of Java.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012)- where to begin. The film portrays a group of men who, as part of aftermath of the 1965 military coup in Indonesia were hired by the army to kill over 1 million suspected ‘communists’, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, and who are still celebrated for having done so. Oppenheimer asks the men (who are gangsters and criminals by ‘profession’) to re-enact for the cameras, in whatever way they like, the killings which took place, and the resulting documentary is a psychological trip and chilling insight into the mentality of murderers who are today still applauded by the current regime and media. The element of re-enactment in The Act of Killing brings to light the extraordinary influence of Hollywood movies on the lives of the film’s protagonists, as well as on the lives of those around them- everybody encountered is eager to be captured on film, in ever-more elaborate and over-the-top genre scenes.
This also reminded me of another documentary which deploys the technique of re-enactment of brutal acts of torture and murder (albeit in a very different way to Oppenheimer’s film); S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), directed by Rithy Panh. In the film Panh, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, brings together two former prisoners of the regime with their former captors at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former Security Prison 21 (S-21) under the Khmer Rouge.
The film is available in full here: