Narratives of discovery

Joshua Oppenheimer's films on Indonesia's 1965 mass killings and the global human rights discourse

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1 Citation (Scopus)


The Indonesian massacre of 1965 became part of the global human rights discourse after Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing (2012, The Act of Killing [Motion Picture]. Final Cut For Real.) received widespread acclaim. Focusing on the perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings, The Act of Killing was framed and regarded as a film that broke the 50 years of silence in Indonesia. This paper examines how the narratives of discovery underpin the discourses around Oppenheimer’s films, The Act of Killing and its companion piece, The Look of Silence (2014. The Look of Silence. Final Cut For Real.), as well as the 1965–66 atrocities. While the films play an important role in enhancing the global visibility of the issue, the emphases on silence and secrecy have undermined the dissonance and friction in post-authoritarian Indonesia. The entrance of the 1965 massacre into the global stage could be seen as a reproduction of a paternalistic scenario that begins with the Western discovery of a ‘dark secret’ in the Third World. The status of Oppenheimer as a shorthand for the discovery of 1965, however, is mediated and preserved not only by the Western media but also local actors for their own strategic purposes. The political impacts of the Oppenheimer’s films need to be acknowledged along with the complexity of power and privilege in the politics of circulation of issues in the global human rights discourse.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)512-522
Number of pages11
JournalSocial Identities
Issue number4
Early online date3 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • 1965 mass killings
  • documentary film
  • human rights
  • Indonesia
  • media

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