In April, for the first time in its history, the Indonesian government held a national symposium to address the 1965–66 murder of as many as 1 million people, carried out by dictator Suharto’s troops and local street gangs and paramilitary organizations. Given that the Indonesian government has never officially acknowledged that any genocide took place, to hold a public discussion about the atrocities of 1965 is an enormous step on the road to reconciliation, the latest in a flurry of changes in Indonesia since the release of the documentary The Act of Killing in 2012.
With The Act of Killing, the horrific account of the Indonesian genocide as told, boastfully and grotesquely, by the killers themselves, director Joshua Oppenheimer, 41, won the support of the dignitaries of the documentary film world. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog both signed on as executive producers, and the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Later that year Oppenheimer was awarded a prestigious MacArthur “genius” fellowship. What many people don’t know is that Oppenheimer had two co-directors on The Act of Killing: fellow Harvard graduate Christine Cynn and a man credited simply as Anonymous—an Indonesian national who, along with a dozen other crew members, chose to withhold his true identity.
With 2014’s The Look of Silence, a companion piece to The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer was nominated again for an Oscar. Anonymous was again credited as a co-director, but he didn’t travel to Hollywood for the Academy Awards. He didn’t walk the red carpet. Nobody asked him who he was wearing. With the exception of the film crew and a few of his family members, no one knows who he really is. Yet, the effects of his work are being felt across the world’s fourth most populous country, and beyond.
I met Anonymous in a quiet corner on the second floor of a restaurant. He was casually flicking the screen of his smartphone. A second phone, an older, basic model that he uses to communicate in his capacity as Anonymous, lay on the table. His smooth face disguised his middle age while a few gray hairs in his scruffy goatee betrayed it.
Eric Armstrong: It’s been 18 years since the military regime fell. Why do you choose to keep your identity secret?
Anonymous: The possibility of violence still exists.
If someone in the military or the government found out your true identity, what could happen?
We discussed this for a very long time when we were producing the film, with lots of activists, lawyers, journalists, anyone that we can ask safely: What would happen? We don’t know. Three years after [the fall of Suharto in 1998], Munir, the Indonesian human rights activist, he was poisoned on an airplane to the Netherlands. Is there anyone that expected Munir will be killed just three years after the political reform? It was so unexpected. So what will happen if they know that you are the producer, that you are the co-director? You can have an “accident.” We have so many cases of “accidents” where no one knows what happened, who’s doing it, no one is taken to court.
I think with the advanced technology, I don’t think the intelligence doesn’t know. I think they know. We do anything we can with our gadgets of communication, we encrypt all of the files, etc. Some of the anonymouses who helped with a screening were arrested by police, and they couldn’t find anything that connected them to The Look of Silence distribution. But I don’t think the intelligence don’t know. They know. But as long as we are anonymous they cannot do anything.
What is daily life like for you? How do you make your living?
I still work distributing The Look of Silence part time, and also work in other documentary projects with Indonesian filmmakers, or as a fixer for TV documentary news programs for foreign TV stations. This is the job I did mostly before I was really involved full time in The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence project. Besides that, I also work for an NGO.
Have you had any close calls where you thought your identity may have been compromised?
Probably the closest call I had is when a close friend of a mine, a filmmaker, was questioned by a state official when he tried to get a shooting permit for a foreign journalist. This state official, seemingly in a difficult position, had to answer to his boss about how Joshua Oppenheimer shot in Indonesia all these years if there’s no record about permits. This official said to him that he already asked around, he asked dozens of documentarians, filmmakers, anyone who comes to his office submitting forms to get permits, but no one knows who Anonymous is. So far, I think my identity is safe with all of my friends and families, and a small circle of journalists and filmmakers.
How does it feel to know that you will not be recognized for helping to make these films?
I know since the first time I joined the team, that for the safety of Indonesian crew members all of our identities cannot be published. It’s the consequences of making the film. Because I didn’t think of pursuing my career in filmmaking, I don’t really think much that I lost the recognition I deserve.
Do more people know your true identity now, or is it still a small circle of family and friends?
Still a small circle of family and friends know my true identity. Including all the Indonesian crew, I guess no more than 50 people.
How many screenings have there been of The Look of Silence, and how many people have seen it in Indonesia?
So far we’ve sent a little bit more than 3,700 DVDs to screening organizers all over Indonesia with around 600-plus open screenings among them. We have a very rough estimate of 300,000 people in Indonesia have seen it: Around 100,000 watch from screenings, with an average of 30 people watching in each screening; 100,000 watch from YouTube; and another 100,000 from downloading, file copying, unofficial streaming, torrent, etc.
Do you think the films are having a big impact here in Indonesia? Do the common people know about them?
I’m actually not in a position to say this, it’s like I’m bragging, but compared to any other work, books even, and—this is unfortunate—compared to the most important report made by the National Human Rights Commission, it reached more people. You can see in the Twitter, especially if you speak the language, there’s people commenting on it like it’s a popular film, like a popular thing.
The first ones we screen it for usually are activists, labor unions, students, but now it is everyone. What I like even better is history teachers screen it for the students.
What grade level?
Could they get in trouble for doing that?
Those who screen it, they have no trouble at all. Two of them are in Catholic school, and they have a freer atmosphere. One of them is in state public school, but the teacher herself is part of the victim’s family. She lost her grandfather in ’65. Most of the time it is not in the history lesson, it is an extracurricular activity. It won’t be on the report card, and always they get lots of students. It’s always a full house, maybe because it is film.
Has the mainstream Indonesian press covered the films? Do you think they’re under pressure to not cover them?
As far as I can remember only three mainstream media really support the films. Two are in English, the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe, and one in the Indonesian language, Tempo.
The others, they keep saying it is important, but to remember it is not the whole picture, and the other part you have to read or get it from somewhere else. And the other part, I mean, is lies! [Laughs] Of course it is one-sided, the truth is one-sided! Of course you do not include the propaganda and the lies, you have already had it for 32 years, why should we include it?
How has your life changed since the release of the films?
It’s changed a lot. I mean, I still do the same thing, I’m still part of the campaign, I’ve made a lot of new friends, a network, who don’t know who I am. [Laughs] Even in my family, most of my family don’t know what I do. Many of my friends, they don’t know, so it’s also a bit difficult, and also personally, I still don’t know what to do next. There’s a campaign that should be supported, creating a monument, a digital monument for the mass killings.
Is there still no monument dedicated to the victims of the killings?
No. Nothing. We have a monument to seven military officers who were killed in Lubang Buaya. If we have that big of a monument for six people, how big of a monument should we build for the millions?
What did you learn from working on these films?
What I learned is patience. You wait. Usually we make films in one month or three months, you get all the material for it, done. But no, with Joshua you wait. You look for other possibilities. You try another way. Maybe we haven’t won the war yet, but there are so many small battles that we have won so far. And you need to be patient.
There are a lot of things you don’t expect at first and then, it happens. So, I think we haven’t destroyed the whole regime, but something has started a crack, and we have made that crack bigger, and put some seeds inside that crack.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.