Changing the Script

The dawn of a New Year is popular time for resolutions and other changes in outlook. A new year is like a new start and given that it coincides with holidays in many locations – having a few days to relax often helps to renew our outlook generally.

For me it is a good time to read some new books and to try and finish the other 5 or so that I started earlier in the year. There is something great about being “off the grid” even for a a few days and being able to reflect and recharge.

Of course there are the usual reality shocks when you eventually catch up with the news and realise that for much of the world things are not so rosy.

Besides half-read books I was able to catch up on some documentaries I have had in my wish-list for some time. One of those was “The Act of Killing” in which “former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.”

Based on real life events that happened in Indonesia during 1965 and ’66 when between 500,000 and 1m people were purged from the general population ostensibly for political reasons (“anti-communism”) but as always the reality is much more complex than that.

The lead director Joshua Oppenheimer worked making “The Act of Killing” for close to 10 years. Initially he wanted to tell the story of the victims of the mass-killings but early on it came about that the killers themselves used film to reconstruct their versions of events.

“An audience member after a screening in Berlin said that what director Joshua Oppenheimer had done was “like having SS officers re-enact the Holocaust.” Oppenheimer responded that it is not the same at all ‘because ‘the Nazis are no longer in power’, while the death squad members shown in the documentary are still being protected by the Indonesian government.”
“The co-director, as well as 48 other members of the film crew in 27 different positions, are credited as ‘Anonymous’ because they still fear revenge from the death-squad killers. The 41-year-old Indonesian who shared directing credit with Joshua Oppenheimer andChristine Cynn, could only wonder, ‘How could these people tell these horrible stories so lightly and so proudly? You just want to challenge them right away. But you have to keep telling yourself to be patient, to let them tell the story the way they like. Because then we can learn something about the whole system of destruction.’

I read somewhere that to standby and work with these men over 7 or so years to help them re-enact scenes and to document their view of history like that took nerves of steel. That is a huge understatement. It is tempting to look at big issues and feel impatient with change and the status quo. Just like the proverbial death of a thousand cuts the reverse may also be true; from little things big things can grow.

I don’t know if Joshua Oppenheimer knew about this when he started the project but there is some history of drama being used as therapy. Some of the key players in this drama have killed hundreds of men, women and children. One was even said to have killed 1000 people.

How do you reason with one sociopath – let alone a few of them. Disarmingly the “lead character” Anwar Congo looks a bit like Nelson Mandela – a kind of grandpa figure who likes to dance.

Spoiler alert: Towards the end of the movie Anwar looks to have some insights about what he has done.

Originally Oppenheimer started work on a film with the victims of that genocide but he was unable to continue because it was still unsafe to talk about such things and participants were in personal danger. The regime that was responsible for the massacres was still in power for 30 years after 1965 and the militias that did much of the killing are still actively supported by government.

As counter intuitive as it might seem – working with the perps started a change in perception in Indonesian society. A dawning of empathy for some and lots of private conversations so it really started something.

“it also helped catalyze a permanent change in how Indonesia thinks of its past and behaves in its present, which some might argue is even more important than being festooned with awards.
The film—which was co-directed by Christine Cynn and someone who, like many members of the crew, has been forced to remain anonymous in order to protect their safety—is available for free online in Indonesia, where it has become such a phenomenon that it prompted an Indonesia’s spokesman to defensively compare the killings to the history of slavery in the United States, which was a shocking (albeit backhanded) admission of guilt for a government that would rather pretend that it never orchestrated the slaughter of nearly 1 million people.”

It turns out there was another film being made – “The Look of Silence” Inside The Look of Silence, the Best and Most Dangerous Documentary Sequel Ever Made.  It couldn’t have been made without the first film being part of the change process.

What Oppenheimer and his anonymous film makers have done is to change the script for a handful of people in a way that didn’t make any real sense to people at the time. If you’ve seen “The Act of Killing” many of the recreated scenes are absurdist and completely bizarre but that was how they re-imagined their history. It was the start of a long journey and that reflection spread to a much larger group.

Once a year many of us get big ideas about making big changes and making a difference. The reality is often that small everyday changes can work even better. We can all change our personal scripts if we have empathy and engage all of ourselves.