Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Act of Killing, chillingly explores the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66, during which some 500,000 to 1 million innocent citizens were murdered. The film, whose executive producers include realist auteur Werner Herzog and Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris, follows Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, pro-regime paramilitaries of the Pancasila Youth, sadistic criminals who killed more than a million alleged Communists—murders that went unpunished. “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. It is unprecedented in the history of cinema,” Herzog stated, after signing on to produce the film during the final few months of editing.
Oppenheimer spent nearly a decade in the country, with both survivors and perpetrators, eventually gaining the trust of the perpetrators—all who had yet to ever come to terms with the mass killings prior to the film—to create a dramatized film about the atrocities that he had committed, inspired by low budget old Hollywood violent gangster films. The film depicts Congo and others reenacting their crimes, as he wants to be remembered and how he remembers them. In one scene, Congo confesses to another that he has trouble sleeping because he watched his victims die as he strangled them with wire. His friend replies, nonchalantly, “Yeah but you watched them die when you used other methods as well.” Since the film’s release, the mainstream Indonesian media has now broken 47 years of silence of the genocide. We recently sat down with Oppenheimer to discuss the impact of his filmmaking, Herzog, and probing reality.
How did you become interested in this subject and when did it become clear that it would be a documentary film given how little information is out there about these atrocities?
About a decade ago I went to make a film with a community of survivors, not knowing they were survivors. I was asked to make a film about plantation workers who were struggling to organize a union in the aftermath of the dictatorship where unions had been illegal. The female workers were spraying herbicide that was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s and they were struggling on this big oil palm plantation that had soap and shampoo, and they were struggling to organize this union, and their biggest obstacle was fear. There had been a strong union until 1965 that their parents, aunts and uncles had been in but they had been accused of being communist sympathizers as a result, in 1965 put in concentration camps, and dispatched out by the army to local death squads to be killed. They were afraid this could happen again if they organized a union. Meanwhile, they needed a union because they were dying. Every time the survivors would talk about it, we would be arrested, we would be stopped. Meanwhile, they were sending me out on missions to meet some of the perpetrators who they suspected had killed their loved ones.
We wanted to expose to Indonesians what they were too afraid to talk about. One of the survivors suggested I focus on the perpetrators, so that the audience will be able to see why we are so afraid. I filmed every perpetrator that I could find, working my way across the region.
How did that go?
We worked our way up the chain of command, to the city of Medan, where I met Anwar Congo. He was the 41st perpetrator that I filmed. Everybody that I filmed was very open about the things they did, and within minutes of meeting me would tell me these awful stories about how they killed. They seemed proud of what they had done. It’s a symptom of the fact that they’ve never been forced to admit that what they’ve done was wrong. We are talking about the deaths of tens of thousands of people in one province in Indonesia. I realized I was obligated to film everyone that I could find. I said to all of them “you have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history,” and I could be that direct because words like “killing” and “extermination” had a kind of heroic connotation to them.
It is as if these murderers in the film were treated much like celebrities.
They were celebrated as heroes, there was no need to disassemble and open them up. I could say you have participated in killings and your whole society is based on it, and shaped by it—you want to show me what you have done, and I want to know what it means to your society, so show me in whatever way you wish, I will film the process, film the reenactments, we will combine this and create a new form of documentary.
Do you think it was therapeutic for them?
I think it was almost anti-therapeutic. Every time Anwar reenacted something, it was an attempt to insist upon the denial and in that sense it was an attempt to run away from the pain that is there from the very beginning. In the very beginning he says, “I am a very good dancer” and does the cha-cha-cha and says he drinks and takes drugs in order to forget.
What was your intent in making this film?
I filmed these reenactments to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of the survivors. Anwar is making the reenactments to run away from his pain. The reenactments themselves would become a prism, that he would be forced to finally recognize his own broken self, and the horror of what he has done. In a way there is a tension.
So maybe it’s anti-therapeutic.
In that sense, it is anti-therapeutic. But no one is trying to do therapy. If I were a therapist, my loyalty would have to be entirely to him. My loyalty was to the survivors and the human rights community who trusted me with this work. If he were a patient in therapy he would be trying to come to terms with something. At the end—he’s choking on the terror that he will never be free of this. I had the impulse to put down my camera, put my arm around him and say, “It’s okay” which is this dumb thing we Americans say. I was aware at that moment that is was not okay.
What do you hope that an audience member, who might not know about the mass killings in Indonesia, might be able to take from the film?
I hope that the audience, recognizing themselves in Anwar for a moment and realize that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we would like to think. This film is as much a dark mirror held up to Anwar and Indonesian society but also up to all of us. Showing how we all create our world through storytelling, and use storytelling to escape from our most painful and bitter truths. I think that the most banal and pervasive way we do that is by telling ourselves that there are good guys and bad guys. In reality, every act of evil that has been committed by human beings like us—
Speaking of good guys—what was it like working with Errol Morris and Werner Herzog?
Errol is someone I met through one of my mentors. I showed him a selection of roughly edited scenes and he was captivated and said he wanted to help in whatever way that he could. He lent his name and support and has been very involved, trying to build an interesting discourse around the film and what it means about human nature and what it means to have a past. That some things do leave an indelible stain; we can’t wash it away. Werner [Herzog] came in at the end of the editing process. Herzog saw it and said, ‘you must not cut this down! This is perfect! You must be so blind! I will tell you if you are moving any vital organs such that the new version will not work.” Ever since then he has been a tireless ambassador.
How has the film been received in Indonesia?
That has been the best part. It’s just come into Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, just in the way I had hoped it would. To expose for Indonesians something that they know is true, so that they could, like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes who points to the King and says, “The King is naked!” It’s said by the perpetrators themselves, so emotionally, so forcefully so that there’s no going back. There’s been a double issue—the equivalent of Time in Indonesia, talking about the killings as a genocide, 75 pages of boastful storytelling by perpetrators from across Indonesia.
Are you still in touch with Anwar?
Yes, I am regularly in touch with him. He saw the film last year, after not wanting to see it for a long time. I think he understood that it would be very painful. We had him go to a place with a good Internet connection, so that I could be with him by Skype while he watched it. He was very emotional, and quiet at the end of the film, he was a little tearful and then Anwar said after five minutes, “This film shows what it is like to be me. It is an honest film and I am glad I could be so honest—and I will stand by the film,” which seems like an odd thing to say but he might have felt under pressure from the paramilitary group, so he is not denounced for it. I can’t say I like Anwar but I have a love for him, as a person.