Oscar-Nominated Doc 'The Act of Killing' Stirs Debate in China

Berlinale The Act of Killing - H 2013

Berlinale The Act of Killing - H 2013

Local newspaper coverage of the film, which explores the mass killing of accused communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the 1960s, has inspired a wave of outcry on Chinese social media.

The Oscar nomination of The Act of Killing in the best documentary category has kicked off some heated debate in the Chinese press and on local social media this week.

Directed by American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, the movie explores the horrifying mass killings of accused communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the 1960s by inviting some of the events' original perpetrators to re-create their acts on film.

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Executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the film has been celebrated for its daring and inventive cinematic techniques, and for calling international attention to a historical atrocity that has yet to be given official recognition in Indonesia – where many of the relatives of the victims still live in fear.

Following the film's nomination, several Chinese newspapers, including state mouthpiece People's Daily, ran articles about the movie and the historical episode it documents, highlighting the fact that ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia were among the main targets of the 1965-66 killings, in which more than half a million people were murdered. The People's Daily piece said that “generations of Indonesians were brainwashed” and praised the film for bringing attention to the incidents.

The stories have triggered heated debate in the more nationalistic wing of Chinese social media, where many were alarmed to learn of the atrocities, and some made comparisons to the Rape of Nanking – a historical episode that remains highly charged in China to this day. 

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Some Weibo users wrote that China should take a tougher diplomatic stance on Indonesia and demand an official apology, while others suggested that ordinary Chinese should vote with their dollars by boycotting Indonesian vacation destinations, such as Bali. 

"China should stop sending any foreign aid to this barbarian country," the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post quoted one Weibo user as writing.

"How brutal are you, Indonesia?" read another much-retweeted Weibo post.

Other social media commentators expressed shock over the fact that they never heard of the events during their schooling in Chinese classrooms and called on the government to add the atrocity to official textbooks.

And some drew parallels to the recent 1998 anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia, in which more than 1,000 people, nearly all Chinese, were killed.

"Indonesia has never apologized over the 1998 massacre against the Chinese," wrote a Shanghai-based consultant named Chen Zonghe. "Both Indonesia and China have to step out and offer an explanation for this history."