The documentary filmmaker on reenacting atrocity as an allegory for impunity in his new film, The Act of Killing, which exposes the perpetrators of Indonesia’s mid-century genocide.
Image by Oliver Clasper
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers to the sound of trumpets.” No one captures the problematic pretense of impunity better than Voltaire—except perhaps documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. The director’s new and profoundly disturbing film, The Act of Killing, opens with a direct nod to the philosopher, if only to one-up him. In an effort to expose the moral murkiness behind Indonesia’s 1965 and 1966 government sponsored purges, Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with a group of perpetrators whose attempts at self-glorification are enough to make a full brass band seem understated.
Documenting a fictive take on reality rather than reality per se, The Act of Killing unfolds in an unnerving aesthetic overlap between the surreal and the hyperreal. The subjects of the film, former members of the country’s vigilante military Pancasila Youth Party, go to theatrical extremes to reenact the atrocities they committed. In addition to recruiting women and children to act out large-scale massacres, the men stage interrogations, beatings, and executions, as well as costumed and almost hallucinogenic musical numbers in which dancers emerge from the mouth of a gargantuan metal fish.
Despite the overall effect of visceral and ethical nausea, moments of uncomfortable humor arise out of the disjunction between what we know about the subjects’ past and the way we see them behave in the present. When they drunkenly belt out Bob Dylan lyrics or stop filming because the call to prayer demands a moment of spiritual reverence, the viewer is forced into a state of cognitive dissonance. But as the Oppenheimer observes, the Manichean divide of good guys and bad guys can “only exist in movies.”
Oppenheimer’s camera adheres most closely to Anwar Congo, the charismatic—and at times disarmingly open—leader of a small band of party alumni. We first meet Anwar on a Medan rooftop that once served as a primary execution zone. Dressed in a silk suit, he matter-of-factly describes his preferred method of killing: strangulation with a wire—the most effective and least bloody way to take a life. Anwar’s ease around Oppenheimer translates to a queasy intimacy that permeates the film. Oppenheimer remains all but invisible as Anwar switches between recounting his nightmares and the brutal highlights of his career, but when he does interject the effect is chilling. After Anwar claims that the reenactments have made him feel empathy with the victims, Oppenheimer flatly points out the key difference between drama and reality: the loss of life.
I sat down with Oppenheimer one dreary morning at his publicist’s cozy Soho office. Unassuming and exactingly articulate, for the duration of our conversation he never twitched or fidgeted or broke eye contact. His manner of speaking—slow, assured, and slightly sibilant—has a calming effect that commands rather than demands attention. Our discussion centered on his creative process and how he managed to maintain sanity and distance while producing his new work.
—Emma Myers for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve been working in Indonesia for about twelve years now. What led you there initially?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.
Guernica: Anwar is an incredible central subject because he’s so charismatic and open. What do you look for when you’re casting and how do you know when you’ve found your subject?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I wasn’t actually looking for the right central character because what seemed most important throughout the journey was always changing. I began the project on behalf of the community of survivors and they didn’t know how their relatives had been killed; they just knew they’d been taken away and never came back. I was filming the perpetrators and moving my way across the region assuming I would make a film out of boastful testimony, for lack of a better word, and of these sorts of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. I worked my way up the chain of command from the plantation region around Medan, to Medan, and then beyond to some retired army generals in Jakarta and ex-CIA officers living outside of D.C. Everybody was boastful, everybody was taking me to the places where they had killed. I expected to make a film that involved a great many people, but at some point I shifted from what had happened—how people had been killed—to how this whole society (and normality) had been built on terror and lies and mass graves.
I would always condemn the crimes that these men had committed and were still committing through extortion and so forth, but one of my main principles was that I should never condemn them as a whole person.
It wasn’t like I was looking for my main character, but I lingered on Anwar because his pain was close to the surface. As he began to suggest what he called “improvements” to the reenactments, I started to understand that he was actually trying to run away from the meaning of what he’d done. In that first scene where he dances on the roof, I think he is disturbed about what he did on that roof, but he doesn’t dare say it because he’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong. He takes that disturbed feeling and projects it onto his clothes, onto his hair, onto his acting and suggests “improvements.” Each reenactment was another incredible allegory for impunity and I knew that through these dramatizations we could hold a very dark mirror up to him and up to the whole society. It was much more a process of discovery than a casting process.
Guernica: There is a sense of intimacy between the two of you that comes through in the film. Was the sense of comfort immediate, or did it take time to build?
Joshua Oppenheimer: It took time. But he was fairly open—when he first says to me on the roof that he drinks and does drugs and dances to forget what he’s done, I think I was so shocked by his dancing on the site where he’d killed that I was not ready to receive his openness. I was seeing something monstrous, but he was open from the beginning. I would always condemn the crimes that these men had committed and were still committing through extortion and so forth, but one of my main principles was that I should never condemn them as a whole person. And I guess I realized that before I met Anwar. All the perpetrators I filmed before him were ordinary people with wives, with children, with grandchildren. They could be caring, they could be arrogant: they were normal people. And I realized that I would fail in my effort to shed light on how human beings live with our actions if I start condemning people in my head as monsters. If I did that, it would be primarily to reassure myself that I’m not like them—to distance myself from them. I don’t believe you can make an honest film about another person in all their complexities from a place of distance. You can make a journalistic report, you can judge someone from a distance, but you can’t really get to know them. So that was a rule I set for myself: every time during filming if I felt I was just starting to hate Anwar, I would force myself to stop and take a few days, pull myself together, and give myself time to process whatever it was I had heard and then come back.
Guernica: What was it like for you psychologically and emotionally to spend so much time with these men?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I started the journey feeling like I was working on behalf of survivors, looking for the men who had done this to them, seeing the killers as embodiments of evil. But there was also an element of fascination there—going into the heart of darkness—and that implicates me and it implicates the viewer, because that’s what we look for in movies. We go to movies to see people get their heads blown off—not all of us—but that’s something peculiar about what it means to be human. As I filmed more and more of them—Anwar was the forty-first killer I filmed—I quickly realized that I was meeting ordinary people, and that I could like them. On the one hand I was hearing these horrible things, particularly as Anwar started going through the worst parts of what he did with abandon. It was giving me nightmares, and for about six months I had insomnia. At the same time of course I became numb, which is a good thing, because you can’t make the film if you’re emotionally devastated at every moment. But it also meant that there were these very shocking pitfalls along the way.
It would be perverse to visit the killers on behalf of the thousands that were killed and then lead them toward redemption. There is no redemption in the end. It’s an anti-catharsis.
The most memorable pitfall was the very last time I filmed with Anwar. Just as Anwar can’t look at the true meaning of what he’s done, I also would have to suspend my disbelief and not see—bracket my awareness of the horror. When we were on the roof the very last time I filmed him and he starts to retch, as a human being who actually has some kind of love for this man after filming him for years, I wanted to put my arm around him and say “its going to be OK,” which is this crazy thing we say in English. I remember thinking “but its not going to be OK.” And that’s what he’s going through now: the horror of realizing that somehow he’s damned, that he has destroyed himself. And that was awful for me too. The numbness was necessary, but it was also like a false bottom. Suddenly the floor would drop out from underneath you and you’d be standing above an abyss.
Guernica: Did you find yourself needing to buy into the killers’ justifications?
Joshua Oppenheimer: The challenge was that even though there’s a necessary numbness—and part of that was a kind of graveyard humor that my crew and I would develop—you have to always remember the moral significance of what you’re doing. Because my project was trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of the survivors—and not to Westerners, who don’t necessarily care, but to Indonesians—I really felt that I was harvesting these celebratory moments as metaphors or allegories for impunity. I was precisely not seeing them as moments of justification. I was resistant to the film being a psychodrama; it would be perverse to visit the killers on behalf of the thousands that were killed and then lead them toward redemption. There is no redemption in the end. It’s an anti-catharsis. Anwar exposes how corrupt and empty the system they’ve built really is. Nausea is shown to be the condition of a culture founded on mass murder.
Guernica: Was it ever necessary to adopt the mindset of your subjects in order to make it through a day of filming?
Joshua Oppenheimer: No. I tried to stay close to my own heart and my own conscience so that I could respond honestly. A good example of that is the moment where Anwar offers me this kind of false confession where he says “I feel what my victims felt.” It’s almost an attempt to get off the hook by offering me a generic confession on the one hand and on the other to reassure himself, because if he feels what his victims felt, then perhaps what he’s done has been no worse than making a movie. He’s denying the moral and physical reality of what he’s done. So that’s an example of a moment of where because I wasn’t in his mindset—I wasn’t trying to reassure him—I was able to recognize, “No, you don’t feel what your victims felt.”
Guernica: How did you manage edit to one thousand hours of footage into a cohesive film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: The material we filmed was very layered. There’s so much going on and I wanted to create space for the viewer to switch their awareness between the layers as they wished. I think that this is maybe where the shorter, theatrical version suffers a bit. I worked with two editors for over a year to cut down the one thousand hours to twenty-three hours of edited scenes, and then almost one year of working with the main editor to get to the director’s cut. The rest of the cuts happened pretty quickly after that. It had to be quick because I was blind after that process and there wasn’t any money left.
When we put the film together there was this sense that we would have to treat the perpetrators as human beings. That was rule number one. Rule two was that humor should only be used in two ways: to disarm the viewer before something horrifying comes and to point out the grotesque absurdity of things. The third principle was that we should walk a tight rope between repulsion and empathy. The final principle was that we would make the killer’s material as powerful as possible, so that it could reveal truths about how they see themselves in a way that we couldn’t capture with the more observational material. In that sense, the fiction scenes start to take over the film in the last act to become sort of a fever dream, to create something formally strange, particularly in the director’s cut, but in the shorter version as well.
Guernica: Reenactment is central to your film, and there are explicit tensions between reality and performance and the authenticity implicit in documentaries. What is the role of storytelling in this film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I think we create our world through stories. We use storytelling to escape or protect ourselves from the unimaginable and the horrible—from the real, in a way. It’s like white light—if you put everyday reality through a prism you get this rainbow of colors that you couldn’t see before. I’m interested in exploring the world to show the things that are invisible. And not just undocumented aspects of reality, but to actually make manifest things that have been hitherto invisible through the intervention of filmmaking. I think it’s a pity that we’ve conflated cinema verité with direct cinema. Direct cinema is about simulating a reality in which you’re not having the overwhelming influence that you really are having. Cinema verité from Jean Rouch was about having people perform on camera and letting them reflect on that performance in order to understand how they imagine themselves. I think I’ve taken that even further, but I’m standing on his shoulders. For me the idea of having people stage their realities and filming the process was an organic and natural response to the situation I found in Indonesia, where the killers were falling over themselves to dramatize what they did for me.
Guernica: The film has a number of highly stylized, surreal sequences that make it all the more disturbing and hard to digest. Did you have this aesthetic in mind from the beginning?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I knew that if the film was going to reenact the creation of fantasy, it would have some quality of a dream, because the way we construct our reality through storytelling is not rational. Anwar has these stories that he’s told himself that make no sense. It’s some unconscious need he’s built up into a kind of psychic scar tissue around his wound. To distance himself from the killing, he has to show the killing to transform the real into the symbolic, the representational. That’s not rational, it’s an unconscious drive.
Guernica: The sequences in front of the giant fish sculpture are particularly memorable.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The fish is on the banks of Lake Toba, which is the crater of a super volcano. It wasn’t a sculpture, actually, it was a seafood restaurant that closed down. It’s like a product of optimism and human fantasy that’s been abandoned because it was untenable. It was meant to be the set for a musical number—Anwar loves Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?” We found it together and he found it so sad that something that should be golden and beautiful was in a state of decay. The song has spoken verses about disappointment and Anwar replaced them with stories from his own life—the disappointment that he never became as powerful as he wished in life, and that killing was never as glorious as he wanted it to be. We shot the number and it was ultimately too thin for the film. But there were these pure moments of poetry [evoked by the setting] that I felt had to be included, even though the musical number itself wasn’t.
Guernica: The Act of Killing is one of the most talked about documentaries of the year. Can you speak a bit about the reactions to the film in Indonesia?
Joshua Oppenheimer: This film can’t be distributed commercially in Indonesia, because they have political censorship. Showing it publicly would provide an excuse for the military and the paramilitary to attack screenings. To get around that we’ve held screenings for all the major journalists and editors of Indonesia’s biggest news outlets, artists, intellectuals, historians, writers, filmmakers, and human rights advocates, and they have universally loved the film. Starting with the most influential Indonesians, the film has been disseminated beginning on International Human Rights Day last year. It’s been screened in ninety-three cities, 280 times, which is not a huge number for such a big country.
Guernica: Do you think the film can effect real political change?
Joshua Oppenheimer: The film has come to Indonesia like the little child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” pointing at the king saying “look the king is naked!” Everyone knew it but they were too afraid to say it. Now the media feels they cannot go back to their silence and there have been very serious discussions and investigations of the genocide in the Indonesian media for the first time in forty-seven years. I hope that it begins the process of truth telling so that there can be reconciliation. It will also hopefully inspire a movement against political corruption, against the use of gangsters in politics, and toward the redistribution of the nation’s wealth away from people who’ve enriched themselves through terror, through kicking people off their land, and to the survivors who have been systematically impoverished and excluded from Indonesia’s economic life.
Werner Herzog [one of the film’s executive producers] said to me, “Josh, art doesn’t make a difference.” And then he looked at me for a very long time and said: “until it does.”