Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Westminster
Unit of AssessmentArt and Design: History, Practice and Theory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Genocide and Genre is an AHRC-funded documentary film research project,
exploring performative methods to investigate the 1965-66 genocide in
Indonesia and its current ramifications. Following the first public
showing of its initial film output The Act of Killing in August
2012, the project has had extensive impact of two kinds: on cultural life,
particularly in North America and Europe, and on civil society and public
discourse, particularly in Indonesia. Widely acclaimed at film festivals
in North America and Europe, The Act of Killing has prompted
intense discussion among film critics, filmmakers and film-audiences. In
Indonesia, widespread unofficial showings of the film have served to
invigorate the work of human rights activists, and prompted new nationwide
public discussion of a previously largely taboo topic.
The Genocide and Genre research project was conceived by Joshua
Oppenheimer and developed in collaboration with Joram ten Brink from 2005.
It built upon previous research on re-enactment in documentary film,
particularly in the work of Jean Rouch, undertaken by ten Brink from 2002
onwards (see ten Brink, ed., 2007), and on the work of Oppenheimer in
Indonesia from 2003 with victims and survivors of the 1965-66 massacres,
and on his resulting encounters with perpetrators. Ten Brink was
successively full-time Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor,
University of Westminster 1989 to present; Oppenheimer was Research
Fellow, University of Westminster, March 2007 to March 2011 full-time,
March 2011 to October 2011 half -time, Reader full-time Jan 2013 to
The project used practice-based research to explore four interrelated
- The use of re-enactment in documentary film production in the context
of a nation's history of mass political killings.
- The role of fantasy, fiction and cinematic genres in both the
performance and remembrance of mass violence.
- The development of nonfiction filmmaking methods to excavate the
implication of fantasy, fiction and cinematic genres in the performance
and remembrance of mass violence.
- The use of feedback as a documentary tool to confront perpetrators of
violence with their actions.
The major resulting research output is the film The Act of Killing.
This formally innovative work contributes to critical understandings of
how individuals and groups perform, remember and re-tell acts of genocidal
violence. It recovers crucial details about the genocide, and analyses the
cinema genres and grammars through which both political violence and its
subsequent official history have been staged in the city of Medan in North
Reflection on the issues addressed in the Genocide and Genre project is
provided in the edited collection Killer Images: Documentary Film,
Memory and the Performance of Violence (ten Brink and Oppenheimer,
Columbia University Press, 2012).
Research for the project was conducted in Indonesia and the UK by The
Act of Killing's director Joshua Oppenheimer and co-director
Christine Cynn (Technician, University of Westminster, 2008- 9), supported
by Joram ten Brink as producer and AHRC principal investigator.
Pre-production and filming for The Act of Killing were conducted
between 2003 and 2010, editing and post-production from 2009 to 2012.
Because of current political conditions in Indonesia, several Indonesians
who worked on the film have had to remain anonymous. One worked as a co-
director with Cynn, and as a translator during editing.
The key research insights of Genocide and Genre for which impact is
claimed are the exploration of the behaviour of perpetrators of the
Indonesian genocide through their re-enactment of their killings, often in
genres familiar to them through their knowledge of Hollywood cinema, and
the documentation of their status and views in current Indonesian society.
In The Act of Killing, victorious and seemingly unrepentant
perpetrators of genocide draw on their cinematic fantasies to dramatise
their roles in the killings, suggesting genres, writing scripts and
directing scenes. Through this disturbing dramatic space, the work
investigates not only the routines of violence, but also how an entire
society (in this case contemporary Indonesia) has been built on the basis
of terror and trauma. The film discovers and presents the conditions for a
new form of nonfiction film: a documentary of the imagination. Through the
perpetrators' re-enactments, and observational footage documenting their
filmmaking process, it documents how perpetrators wish to be seen, and how
they imagine themselves and the society they built and rule over. Through
this novel approach to the study of power and impunity, The Act of
Killing pioneers a new approach to nonfiction filmmaking, historical
filmmaking, the investigation of political violence and the social
References to the research
1. The Act of Killing (2012) film in three distinct versions: a
159-minute director's cut; a 115-minute standard cinema version; and a
95-minute broadcast version. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directors
Christine Cynn and Anonymous. First shown publicly at the Telluride Film
Festival, August 2012.
2. ten Brink, Joram and Oppenheimer, Joshua, eds (2012), Killer
Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence,
London: Columbia University Press. (Introduction by ten Brink and
Oppenheimer, essays by ten Brink and Oppenheimer).
3. ten Brink, Joram, ed. (2007), Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean
Rouch, London: Wallflower Press. (Introduction, essay, and three
interviews by ten Brink).
EVIDENCE OF QUALITY:
The Act of Killing is submitted in REF2 for Joshua Oppenheimer in
REF 2014. DVDs and hard- copy portfolio available in REF documentation.
Killer Images is submitted in REF2 for Joshua Oppenheimer in REF
Building Bridges was submitted for Joram ten Brink in RAE 2008.
AHRC Research Grant `Genocide and Genre': £395,350, March 2008 - February
2011; University of Westminster New Directions Fund: £60,540, March 2007 -
February 2008; Danish Film Institute Development Grant, 2008: £17,137;
Danish Film Institute Production Grant, 2009: £91,399; Danish Film
Institute Production Grant, 2010: £68,549; Norwegian Film Institute, 2009:
£51,412; Nordic Film and Television Fund, 2009: £51,412; Ford Foundation,
2010: £161,000; Ford Foundation (second grant): £130,000; Danish Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, 2009: £45,700; Frit Ord Foundation, 2009: £20,565;
Rogaland Film Fund: £22,355; Stavanger Kommun Kulturbyfond: £25,706;
ZDF/Arté, 2009: £76,690; Danish Broadcasting (DR): £4,570); Finnish
National Television (YLE): £6,817; Channel Four Television (UK): £30,000;
Swedish National Television (SVT): Norwegian National Television (NRK):
£10,282; Dutch National Television (VPRO): £4,261).
Details of the impact
IMPACT ON CULTURAL LIFE IN NORTH AMERICA AND EUROPE
The Act of Killing was first shown publicly at the Telluride Film
Festival in August 2012, followed by screenings at the Toronto
International Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and more than twenty
other film festivals over the following year. It was exhibited in cinemas
in Denmark (November 2012 - January 2013), France (April - May 2013),
Netherlands (May 2013), the UK (from June 2013) and the USA (from July
2013). As of June 2013, The Act of Killing had won 24 awards.
These include the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary
2013, the Danish Academy Award for Best Documentary 2013 (Robert Prize),
Amnesty International Award, Indie Lisboa 2013 and the Aung San Suu Kyi
Award, Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival 2013.
The film festival and public showings have prompted numerous enthusiastic
press reviews, mostly awarding the film their highest star rating and
singling out for comment the film's innovative approach and emotional and
For example Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian described how "The memory of
this mass murder is reawakened by film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer in a
remarkable and at times unwatchably explicit film. It could be a
Marat/Sade for our time... It is a gut churning film: and a radical dive
into history, grabbing the past in a way conventional documentary would
not" (Guardian, 27 June 2013). Nigel Andrews in the Financial
Times commented "First, the film beggars belief. Then it sends
belief running into the hills, screaming for help and understanding. The
Act of Killing is like no movie seen before" (June 27 2013), while the
Danish daily Politiken stated that "`The Act of Killing' simply
sets a new benchmark for how a historical event can be re-told
dramaturgically, analytically and documentarily."(30 October 2012).
These reactions have extended from the elite to the popular press. Chris
Tookey in the Daily Mail described The Act of Killing as "An
astonishing documentary that's essential viewing for anyone wishing to
understand the darker aspects of the human condition... Because of its
revelatory honesty this might be the most important documentary ever" (27
June 2013). Farran Smith Nehme in the New York Post observed, "The
cumulative impact is devastating, and very far from a western country's
brutality. In forcing viewers to hear the boasts of genocide's
perpetrators The Act of Killing puts a harsh spotlight on all celebrations
of bloodshed from Hollywood to the op-ed pages" (19 July 2013).
Alongside reviews the film has been the subject of feature articles in
major newspapers discussing its innovative methods, for example, "A
Movie's Killers are all too Real" by Larry Rohter in the New York
Times (12 July 2013) and "Indonesia: the Art of Atrocity" by Bryan
Appleyard, Sunday Times (12 July 2013). The portfolio submitted to
REF2 includes a fuller listing of press coverage. Further reviews and
comments can also be found online at http://theactofkilling.com/reactions-3/
IMPACT ON PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND CIVIL SOCIETY IN INDONESIA
In reaction to a late rough cut of the The Act of Killing (its
working title was still Freemen), human rights organisations in
Indonesia recognised its potential power and committed themselves to its
distribution. In 2011 the Indonesia Rights Commission on Human Rights
wrote to the filmmakers expressing their excitement at helping to release
the film. "If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims
to be, citizens must recognise the terror and repression on which our
contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for
that matter, has done this more effectively than Freemen." Owing to
the current political situation, which The Act of Killing
documents, the filmmakers adopted a careful strategy about releasing the
film in Indonesia, in order to avoid the film being officially banned. In
the autumn of 2012 closed screenings were held for journalists,
filmmakers, celebrities, intellectuals, artists, survivors' groups and
human rights activists, in order to build up cultural, media and political
support for the film, before more general release.
One result of these early screenings was to prompt the editors of Tempo,
Indonesia's leading news magazine, to research and publish a special
edition of the magazine on the 1965-66 killings (1-7 October 2012). As an
article in Tempo on the anniversary of that special edition
explained, "Arif [Arif Zulkifli, the editor of the Tempo Media Group]
stated that the idea for the special edition was taken from the
documentary film The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua
Oppenheimer. `We developed the idea further by looking for the locations
of murders in other regions.'"
The resulting special issue of Tempo, entitled "Executioners'
Confessions", praised The Act of Killing as "the most important
work in any medium ever produced about our nation," and included dozens of
pages of perpetrators' testimony from around the country — something
unprecedented in the history of Indonesian journalism (Tempo 1-7
October 2012). The issue sold out on the first day, went through two
re-printings, and has now been published as a book by Tempo Media Group.
Everyone who saw the film in the early screenings was facilitated to take
the film back to their networks and communities and hold invitation-only
screenings. (Invitation-only screenings fall through a legal loophole: a
film need not be submitted to the censors unless screened publicly).
The release began on International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2012,
with 50 screenings in 30 cities. Screenings averaged 200 people each, so
approximately 10,000 Indonesians saw the film on the first day. By summer
2013 there had been 1,100 screenings in 118 cities, and almost all of
these screenings were now open to the public. The reason why people felt
increasingly able to hold public screenings, and the reason why these
showings did not provoke a ban on the film, was probably due to the
reaction of the Indonesian and international media. There have been more
than 500 articles published in the Indonesian media about the film. By
summer 2013 approximately 200,000 Indonesians had seen the film. (To
ensure an even wider release, Oppenheimer has since made the film
available for free download for everybody in Indonesia.)
These showings have often involved considerable efforts of organisation
and evoked powerful responses among viewers. For eyewitness descriptions
of two such screenings see Caroline Cooper's, "The Act of Seeing The
Act of Killing" (Guernica 13 June 2013) and Sara
Schonhardt's, "`Act of Killing': In small screenings, by word of mouth,
Indonesians learn of a dark past" (Christian Science Monitor 13
December 2012). The film's impact in Indonesia has also been the subject
of considerable coverage in international news media (for example, "Indonesia
film on mass killings stirs debate", Al Jazeera English, 8 October
2012; "101 East - Indonesia's Killing Fields" Al Jazeera English,
30-minute documentary, 19 December 2012; "'The Act of Killing' helps
Indonesia confront its dark past", CNN, 30 September 2013; "Film
gives Indonesia view of bloody, obscured past", Margie Mason, Associated
Press, 4 October 2013).
Sources to corroborate the impact
IMPACT ON CULTURAL LIFE IN NORTH AMERICA AND EUROPE
All the reviews below are available on request from the HEI
1) Nigel Andrews, Financial Times, 27 June 2013.
2) Peter Bradshaw, Guardian, 27 June 2013.
3) Dorte Hygum Sorensen, Politiken, 30 October 2012, in Danish,
English translation available.
4) Chris Tookey, Daily Mail, 27 June 2013.
5) Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post, 19 July 2013.
IMPACT ON PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND CIVIL SOCIETY IN INDONESIA
All the reviews, articles and letters below available on request from
1) Tempo special edition, 1-7 October 2012, in Indonesian,
partial English translation available.
2) 'Tempo Luncrkan Buku Pengakuan Algojo 1965' Tempo, 30 Sep
2013, partial English translation available.
3) "Indonesian Film on Mass Killings Stirs Debate", Al Jazeera
English, 8 Oct 2012, / "101 East - Indonesia's Killing Fields", Al
Jazeera English, 21 Dec 2012.
4) Caroline Cooper, "The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing", Guernica,
13 June 2013.
5) Sara Schonhardt, "'The Act of Killing': In small screenings, by word
of mouth, Indonesians learn of dark past", Christian Science Monitor,
13 December 2013.
6) Letter from executive director of Partisipasi Indonesia (Indonesian
Human Rights organization), in Indonesian, English translation available.
7) Letter from vice chairman of Indonesia National Commission on Human
8) The Act of Killing: Dossier for 2013 PUMA Impact Award,
9) "Film gives Indonesia view of bloody, obscured past", Margie Mason, Associated
Press, 4 October 2013.