Cambodia and Indonesia in the Oscars

The Academy recognizes controversial films about Cambodian and Indonesian genocides.

Cambodia and Indonesia in the Oscars
Credit: @ModernHatch

Two Oscar-nominated films tackled some very controversial issues involving the modern histories of Cambodia and Indonesia. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture made history by becoming the first Cambodian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was the documentary about Indonesia to get the nod.

The Missing Picture, filmed without any actors or script, is based on the life of director Rithy Panh, who survived the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The Act of Killing, meanwhile, was a brave retelling of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the 1960s which resulted in the slaughter of almost a million people.

For Rithy Panh, it is important to make a film about the Khmer Rouge from the perspective of a Cambodian: “Before me, nobody made films about genocide, except the foreigners. No point of view came from Cambodia. It’s not easy, you know? People here want you to show the sunset on the Angkor Wat temple, the Water Festival, the boat-race boat, the smiling countryside, Country of Wonder. I understand. I like watching films with special effects, romance films. But we have also to face our history.”

Aside from incorporating archival video footage and Khmer Rouge propaganda clips, the filmmaker used clay figurines to represent Cambodians in the film.

“I couldn’t make a film about genocide using actors and actresses like Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List. I lived through this genocide, so it’s very difficult for me to explain to actors and actresses what death is like, what it’s like to watch an execution,” the director said in an interview.

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The title of the film is also a poignant reference to the lost images of Rithy Panh’s parents who died in a Khmer Rouge labor camp.

“It’s the one that I miss the most. It’s to see my parents get older, to be able to share time with them, to help them, to love them, to give them back what they gave me…I would prefer to have my parents with me than to make movies about the Khmer Rouge,” the director explained.

If the genocidal legacy of the Khmer Rouge is globally recognized, the anti-communist purge in Indonesia is not generally acknowledged. Perhaps Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing quickly earned accolades because of its daring attempt to discuss a taboo subject in Indonesian society.

The documentary reminded the world that a million people were murdered, raped, and enslaved in Indonesia in 1965 to 1968 to allegedly protect the country from the scourge of communism. And Oppenheimer’s team succeeded by interviewing veteran gangsters in North Sumatra who gamely re-enacted the massacres they committed in the past.

“I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find across North Sumatra, working from death squad to death squad up the chain of command, from the countryside to the city. Everybody was boastful, everybody would invite me to the places they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed,” wrote the director.

Reacting to the documentary, the Indonesian government objected to Indonesia being “portrayed as a cruel and lawless nation.”

“The film portrayed Indonesia as backwards, as in the 1960s. That is not appropriate, not fitting. It must be remembered Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed,” said Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential spokesman for foreign affairs.

But for Oppenheimer and his Indonesian crew, the documentary is an indictment of the present government which has failed to officially probe and punish officials involved in the bloody anti-communist witch hunts.

“People may assume The Act of Killing is a historical documentary about what happened in 1965. But our purpose was to expose a present-day regime of fear for what it is. In that sense, the film is not a historical narrative, but a film about history, about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt and color the present,” the director asserted.

Some of those responsible for the killings are still in power, which explains why Oppenheimer’s Indonesian co-director has chosen to hide his/her identity. The co-director denied that it was their intention to tarnish Indonesia’s reputation when they made the documentary.

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“A negative image is to make the architect of the mass killing a hero. A negative image is when there is an absence of efforts to start a true reconciliation process but instead displayed a fake reconciliation that basically contained a process to forget and made it as if it was the only possible way,” the co-director said.

Oppenheimer hopes that the film would stir more open debates in Indonesia: “It’s a really important time for Indonesians to be talking about this film, and an important time for Indonesians to find the courage to confront their painful past, and the role of their present political leaders in masterminding that past and lying about it for decades.”

Neither film won an Oscar, but both have already created an impact in the modern politics of Cambodia and Indonesia. The youth of the two countries will benefit from the greater historical awareness inspired by the films. Perhaps Cambodian and Indonesian leaders will learn from the mistakes of the past. In the case of Indonesia, the upcoming presidential election is an opportunity to make human rights a major campaign topic, including an appeal to acknowledge the anti-communist massacres orchestrated by top military leaders.