I'll put it plainly: Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary about Indonesian death squad leaders, The Act of Killing, is the most innovative masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, bar none, that I've seen in recent memory--a picture that merits every award its already won, and countless accolades waiting on its horizon.
First, some context: Between 1965 and 1966, Indonesia underwent a bloody regime change from a pro-communist administration to an authoritarian, pro-West government, headed by President Suharto. The turnover—fully supported by the U.S.—bordered on genocidal; tens of thousands of real or perceived communist sympathizers and Chinese nationals were shot, dismembered by sword, had their throats slit or were decapitated and their bodies dumped. Women were raped, and whoever escaped death found hell in concentration camps.
In all, more than half a million people were killed in those two years, and almost two million were locked away. As Jonah Weiner recently wrote for the New Yorker, even the CIA admitted (in its own words) that the massacre was “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”
Though the killings were orchestrated by the military, the men who did the grisly work were often civilians--vigilante gangs whipped into frenzy by a senseless rhetoric of hatred. The now-aging leaders of these gangs, and the ghosts of the crimes they committed, are the subjects of The Act of Killing.
If you’re expecting a cinematic mea culpa in The Act of Killing, you’ll find none. In the half-century since the killings, neither Indonesia at large nor the executioners involved in the massacre have admitted to any wrongdoing. In fact, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the Indonesian government still uses communism as an existential threat to rally support. The killers of ’65-’66 enjoy cultural impunity and public reverence. In one of the film’s many jaw-dropping scenes, the governor of North Sumatra cozies up with a killer on the couch as if chatting to his beloved uncle ("Everyone was scared of him," the governor says. "The only one not scared was me--because he looked after me when I was a kid"); in another, a contemporary talk show host commends one of the killers for developing a more efficient way to kill communists, inciting audience applaud. One can’t help but recognize Indonesia as a twisted vestige of a war most thought was over—the West’s very own version North Korea.
Speaking with the killers, Oppenheimer was initially taken aback by their pride and brazen boastfulness. Anwar Congo—a jovial grandfather who boasts of killing 1,000 people, and who emerges as the film’s central character—eagerly showed Oppenheimer where and how the killings were carried out, and had a dark penchant for reenactments. This made a certain amount of sense, as Congo and his friends got their start as “movie theater gangsters” who controlled black market ticket sales, and used theaters as their headquarters. Anwar and his group idealized James Dean and John Wayne; when they were enlisted to kill, they adopted the techniques they’d learned in gangster films.
In a stroke of genius, Oppenheimer proposed that Anwar and his friends develop fictional scenes based on their experiences, cinematic recreations in the style of gangster, western and musical films. They would write the scripts, and they would play the killers. But they would also play their own victims.
Anwar and his friends agreed, and their journey in making that film—the narrative backbone of The Act of Killing--is both astounding and surreal. Watching the men revisit their crimes and struggle with the nuances of reenactment is a testament to what happens when we come face to face with our pasts--to dissect the stories we tell ourselves in order to live with our sins. For some of the men involved, the experience is an opportunity to entrench themselves in their denial; for Anwar, it becomes a gut-wrenchingly difficult task that leaves viewers agape in horror. With The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer asks what happens to a guilty soul when it’s been spared a meaningful trial, or any trial at all. For anyone mourning the verdict of last week’s murder trial much closer to home, it’s a pressing question.
In advance of the film’s release, I had the pleasure of sitting down and speaking to Oppenheimer about his fears in making the film, the impact it’s had in Indonesia and much, much more.
This isn’t your first project in Indonesia. Can you tell me about your last film? In 2001, I was asked to make a film about a community of plantation workers outside of the city of Medan, Indonesia. It was on a Belgian oil palm plantation, and the film was about the struggle of these workers to organize a union in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship, when unions were illegal. They had some pretty appalling conditions--the women workers were spraying a herbicide that was destroying their livers and killing them. Their biggest obstacle to organizing a union was fear. There had been a strong plantation union until 1965, and their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents had been in this union. [They were] accused of being communist sympathizers, put into concentration camps and then dispatched by the military to be killed. It was clear that they were afraid to talk to me, and as we got into details, it turned out that we were being monitored by the police and the military and the plantation security. We were constantly being arrested and stopped—they would seize our equipment and detain us. It was very, very difficult to work.
How did that project feed into The Act of Killing? The survivors, and the relatives of the victims with whom I was filming, would send me on these missions to find a neighbor, or somebody they knew in the village who had been a killer or perpetrator, to find out how their relatives had died. People were taken away and they’d simply never come back. People wouldn’t know that they had been brought to a river, had their heads cut off and been dumped. That meant that it was very difficult to grieve; you feel guilty grieving somebody you don’t have proof has died. So they sent me on these little missions to meet these neighbors. Within minutes of me asking these men what they did for a living, they would start boasting about how they had killed. It was as though I’d walked into Germany, 40 years after the War, and the Nazis were still in power. This was an enormously important situation. I felt it demanded something of me, and I would give it whatever it took.
How did you find the killers featured in the film? I started working my way across the region, speaking with any perpetrator I could find. I would ask, "Are there any other members of your death squad?" I would film them, and filmed everybody I could find, feeling that these stories were of world historical importance. These men were telling me how tens of thousands—maybe even hundreds of thousands—of people had died. They were getting old and no one had ever documented the killings in that region. Gradually, because everyone was so boastful, open and eager to show me what they had done, they would say, “Would you like to see where we did it?” I’d say okay and go, and they would explain what they did, launching into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed.
Gradually, my question shifted from what happened in 1965, to what’s happening now in 2003, 2004 and 2005. What was the function of their boasting? How do they think the world would hear this? How would I hear this? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? I’d say to these people, "Look, you’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history; your whole society is based on it, your lives have been shaped by it, you want to show me what you’ve done and I want to understand the meaning of what you’ve done. Show me what you’ve done in whatever way you want and I’ll film the process."
How did you decide to focus on Anwar Congo? In the beginning, I expected to combine all these perpetrators from the region in one film, but I lingered on Anwar because I realized he was doing something different with the reenactments. Not only were they a manifestation of his denial—you can’t, for example, do the cha-cha-cha in the place where you killed 1,000 people and not be in denial of the moral meaning of what happened there—but also, his proposed embellishments were a sort of desperate attempts to maintain that story for himself; to keep that denial and preserve it.
I would show everyone the footage of themselves, but when I showed the footage to Anwar, he looked more disturbed than the others. Of course, he doesn’t admit he’s disturbed because to do so would be to admit that what he’d done was wrong—which he’s never had to do and doesn’t want to do. If he did so, he would have to wake up every morning, look in the mirror and see a murderer.
Is there really still a communist threat to Indonesia, as many of the politicians in the film suggest? There’s no communist threat in Indonesia. It’s not unlike the terrorist threat [in the U.S.]--is there a big terrorist threat here? Or is that a discourse that’s kept alive for political reasons?
In the film, one character says something like, "Killing is the worst thing you can do. But if you’re paid well enough, go ahead and do it. Then make up an excuse so you can live with yourself." The government came up with an excuse for killing these awful communists; they make up grotesque stories about the communists. These stories appear to signify that these people feel no remorse, but on the contrary, they can be a sign of the opposite. The paradox of the film is really that: what appears to be a of lack of conscience turns out to be a sign of the opposite. The tragedy is that you have to continue to commit further evil; you have to oppress the relatives of the victims lest they should challenge your version of the story. The other piece of that tragedy is that it demands that you kill again. If you’ve killed one person and now the government demands you kill other people for that same reason, you have to. Otherwise it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time.
A national communist threat just seems so anachronistic, it defies credibility. It can seem kind of quaint and antiquated. You see the same thing in China. I was just there in January, thinking, Gosh it seems kind of quaint, all this anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois rhetoric in an evidently capitalist country. But the rhetoric justifies all of the crimes of that regime and its continuation is indispensable. To use a Marxist term, it’s part of the superstructure, part of the ideology.
It’s evident through the film that you established a fairly personal relationship with these men. Were you ever concerned for your safety? There were a few moments in the film where it felt threatening, especially when I didn’t know people well. When I first met Anwar, it was when he danced the cha-cha-cha on the roof [of a compound where he committed murder]. I could see that when he danced, there was an evident denial of the moral meaning of what he had done. I wondered if I screened it back to him, would he recognize himself in the mirror of that film? He was likely to say, “I don’t want to be filmed anymore, this makes me look bad,” and call the military. So, I had the Indonesian production manager at the airport with a lot of cash and all our bags, ready to buy a ticket for all of us to evacuate if she didn’t receive a text message saying that everything was okay. Anwar looked very disturbed [during the screening], and I was sure he was going to stop it. And then, he didn’t.
I don’t know how to make a film that explores who people are, and how they exist in the world and what they do, without being intimate, without being close to them. I set a rule for myself: I would never condemn the whole person. I would never condemn Anwar as a human being. But I would also never cease to condemn the crimes. [Filming] gave me nightmares, and the nightmares led to insomnia. I wasn’t sleeping properly for six to eight months. People say the film is surreal and feels like a fever dream—that’s probably because it was made in a kind of fever dream.
It’s only in the retelling of their own story that the perpetrators finally engaged with the severity and complexity of their crimes. I wonder if in some sense the film is a testament to the power of art, to the power of telling stories, even if they’re your own? The film is very much about how we as human beings justify our actions through storytelling, and how the stories we tell ourselves create our reality. The aim of art is to give people a space to see what they already know so that they can talk about it, so that the narrative can start to change. So much of the way we talk, and cope with the world, is founded on silence, on not saying things that we know. The aim of this film is to make manifest, to make visible something that we know so powerfully that it’s undeniable afterwards.
How has the film been received in Indonesia? The best part of this has been helping to engender in Indonesia. The film has come to Indonesia exactly as we dreamed it would, like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing at the king and saying, "Look, the king is naked." Because it’s the perpetrators themselves saying it, it’s undeniable. The media has produced special editions of their magazines and newspapers dedicated to the film, reexamining the history of the genocide. There were 50 screenings in 30 cities on International Human Rights day last year, and its grown ever since. As of the first of April, there were 500 screenings in 95 cities across Indonesia, and it just keeps growing. We’ve lost count.
The Act of Killing premieres across the country this weekend.