Surreal, sickening and profoundly disturbing – The Act of Killing (2012) may not be easy to watch, but it has turned the documentary form on its head. The film explodes documentary conventions firstly by examining a bloody historical episode – the 1965 mass slaughter of leftists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia – not from the perspective of the victims, but the perpetrators. Secondly, Joshua Oppenheimer, together with his co-directors Christine Cynn and Anonymous, do not trace these events through interviews or archival footage as we might expect. Rather, they have the perpetrators re-enact their murders for the camera. Their frankness about the massacre that ushered in Suharto’s “New Order,” and their celebratory view of the slaughter reveals much about contemporary Indonesian politics, and the foundation of terror upon which the country’s political elite is built.

Since its premiere at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, The Act of Killing has gone on to screen at numerous festivals to great acclaim, inclusive of Toronto, Berlin, and most recently, the Melbourne International Film Festival. Dan Edwards spoke to Oppenheimer in New York via phone about his experiences making this extraordinary film.

The Act of Killing

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How did you first come to be in Indonesia and interested in the events of 1965?

I first went to Indonesia in 2001 with my collaborator Christine Cynn to make a film about palm oil plantation workers who were struggling to organise a union in North Sumatra, about 60 miles from Medan where I made The Act of Killing. It was a Belgian plantation, and the women were spraying a herbicide that was actually dissolving their livers. They really needed a union so they wouldn’t have to poison themselves, but they were afraid to organise one because their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965, and had been accused of being communist sympathizers. They were put by the army into concentration camps, and then dispatched by the army to civilian death squads to be killed. And they were afraid this could happen again.

This was my first trip to Indonesia, and as I made that film I was confronted with this mass killing I had never heard of. The workers would send us on these very painful missions to meet neighbours who were perpetrators, to see if we could find out how their relatives died. All they knew was their loved ones had been taken away and never returned, which made it very difficult to even grieve or mourn their loss.

The first time I met a perpetrator, I remember going with real caution into the man’s yard, pretending I was just there to introduce myself as the white guy mysteriously living in this plantation community. He asked me in, he offered me tea, and I asked him what he had done for a living. He immediately launched into horrific stories of killing, because the killing was the basis of his career, and the most important thing he had done in his life. And he told these stories in front of his granddaughter and wife. I felt like I’d walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. At that point I realised that I would have to give this situation whatever it took of my life, in order to do it justice and try and understand it.

It turned into a journey that was much bigger than genocide – it became a journey about how we as human beings make sense of our actions. How we understand ourselves. How we tell stories to create our reality. How the world isn’t really divided into good and bad guys. In fact every act of evil in our history has been committed by human beings like us, and we need to try and understand how we commit evil, why we commit evil, the effects of evil actions on ourselves and on each other, and what happens when we commit evil and get away with it. What downward spiral of corruption and evil becomes inevitable when we do these things?

Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer

Was that first perpetrator you spoke to one of the men who appears in The Act of Killing?

No. He was in the first film we made in Indonesia, The Globalisation Tapes (2003). We made that film quickly and immediately went back to do more work in this community. They wanted us to come back and make a film about the genocide – about what had happened and about the nature of the regime that has been in place ever since. But we found that every time we filmed, the military or the police would come and stop us. They would take our tapes and impound our equipment, and it was very frightening for the survivors.

So a group of us flew down to Jakarta to meet with the human rights community there, and we said, “Is it too dangerous to make this film? Is this history still too sensitive?” Everybody, the survivors and human rights advocates alike said, “No, you are on to something that is terribly important. We need a film that exposes not just what happened, but the regime of fear, thuggery and corruption built on the celebration of what happened.” One of the survivors said, “You’ve seen how the perpetrators boast. Film more perpetrators – they will continue to boast, and in their boasting audiences will see why we are so afraid, and they will glimpse the rotten core of this regime. And it will show Indonesians what they already know, but it will show them in an undeniable way, and enable them to talk about things they have been too afraid to talk about.”

So we went back to North Sumatra and I started filming every perpetrator I could find, working my way across the region and up the chain of command. Every perpetrator I met was boastful like the first one, every one would tell me horrific stories of the killings, would invite me to the places where they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of killing much as Anwar Congo does on the roof at the beginning of the film. Then they would complain that they hadn’t thought to bring along a machete as a prop, or a friend to play a victim.

Gradually the questions in my mind started to shift, from what happened here in 1965, to what is happening now, in 2005. Why are these men boasting? For whom are they boasting? What are the effects of their boasting? How do they want to be seen, and how ultimately do they see themselves?

In pursuit of answers to those questions, I started to propose to the perpetrators I was meeting, “Look, you’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. Show me what you’ve done, in whatever way you wish. I’ll film the process and your re-enactments, we’ll combine these things and we’ll create a new form of documentary. Perhaps it will be a documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of everyday life, but it will somehow answer these questions about the meaning of what you have done – what it means to you and your society, how you want to be seen, and how you see yourselves.”

The Act of Killing

How early in that process did you meet Anwar Congo, the main focus of The Act of Killing?

Anwar was the forty-first perpetrator I filmed. I guess I lingered on him because his pain was close to the surface, and offered insight into the true nature of the boasting – namely that is was defensive, it was a desperate effort to convince. I suddenly realised that the boasting is not necessarily a sign of a lack of remorse. It is a sign of impunity, but it is also probably a desperate attempt to convince themselves that what they have done is right, and intimidate the rest of society into accepting that story. In that sense my method was not a lure to get them to open up. But they take such ownership over the scenes they re-enact, and the scenes become so meaningful to them, that it feels like they are making their own film. When Anwar saw the completed documentary, he said, “Indeed this shows what it’s like to be me, and I’m glad that I have made this film.” So in that sense he does feel that it’s his film. It’s because they wanted to make these scenes that they reveal so much.

The Act of Killing

It’s a stunning moment towards the end of the film when Anwar plays a victim for the first time, and afterwards tells you that he now knows what his victims felt. Do you think the experience of re-enacting these killings was genuinely a revelatory experience for Anwar Congo? Had he really never considered what it was like for his victims?

No, I think in a way he considers what it was like for his victims every night in his nightmares. It’s as though he’s trying to displace the shapeless horror of what he’s done with these contained, ultimately safe scenes. If you have been through a trauma, psychologists will tell you that you should talk about it to build up a kind of psychological scar tissue. So Anwar is maybe trying to build up a kind of cinematic scar tissue, through his re-enactments.

What’s interesting is that he comes to play a victim after starting to feel some regret and remorse. We see them re-enact an attack and burning of a village, and he feels it’s too much – he starts to realise that what he did was wrong. And I think that makes him angry, because he realises that it’s destroying him, it’s the source of his nightmares. And so despairingly he throws himself into finally showing the horrible things he did to people.

The next thing he does is start to re-enact the torture and killing that took place in that office where he killed so many hundreds of people. He goes under the table, he pulls out the wire, it’s difficult, it’s painful, and it makes him angry at the victims. He almost starts to feel like his victims’ victim, and he takes it out on them when he tells the victim, “You are the true barbarian.”

Then when he watches that scene, he tries to convince himself that it’s only a movie. The moment you describe when he says, “Now I feel what my victims felt,” I think he’s not being genuine at all. He’s trying to get off the hook by offering me a generic confession. If I had accepted that by saying, “Yes, great, thank you, finally you have felt some empathy with your victims,” he would be let off the hook. It would essentially be saying that what his victims went through was no worse than playing in this movie. So I said, “Of course that’s not true. What your victims went through was unimaginably worse – you’re just acting in a movie. They were dying.” I think it’s in that moment that the bottom drops out for him, and he’s forced to stare into the unbridgeable abyss that lies between all those stories he has told himself about what he’s done, and the true, unimaginable horror of what he has done.

The Act of Killing

 

It’s certainly a pivotal moment when you come back and say, “Actually it’s nothing like what your victims experienced.”

It was a horrible moment too – because I saw how affecting it was for him to hear that. If there is a central line holding the film together, it’s the evolution of the doubt on Anwar’s face, showing that from the very beginning he somehow knows that it was wrong.

The other truly disturbing aspect of the film is that we see many important figures in Indonesia’s contemporary power structure bragging about the killings of the mid-60s, and of their contemporary corruption and abuses of power.

Yes, the film is really about today. It is not a film that provides detailed historical information about what happened in 1965, but it does provide a fairly detailed expose of corruption, impunity and thuggery in contemporary Indonesia. And it’s important, because Indonesia is moving into a presidential election next year, where the four leading contenders include two war criminals – army generals who were involved in massacres in East Timor and another massacre of the Chinese in 1998, one of whom is on a US State Department blacklist. Another one is the Vice-President you see in the film, who says, “We need gangsters in order to get things done and beat people up.” So these are the men who are leading contenders to be Indonesia’s next president. It should give us pause, particularly in Australia. Especially when we recognise Australia was supporting this regime from its inception in 1965, and supported the mass killings at that time. Anecdotally I’ve heard stories of historians being warned by the Australian intelligence services that digging into this past is not in the Australian national interest.

In speaking to your camera in this manner, were the politicians we see deliberately acting in defiance of the moral and ethical expectations they perceive a Western audience might have regarding the behaviour of political leaders? So were they, in a sense, showing off and raising a finger to the audience they thought they were addressing via your camera? Or do they genuinely see the political order they founded through terror as something to be celebrated?

I think what they’re doing depends upon their individual positions. The Vice-President is a politician catering to the thugs that he presumably uses, and that he hopes will support him when he runs for office. The head of the paramilitary movement, the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport, the Governor of North Sumatra – these people are thugs, and therefore they depend for their power on being feared. So it’s not so much that they are speaking in defiance of a Western audience. They are projecting a fearsome image, because fear is their capital. Why are the lower level thugs able to walk around a market and shake down Chinese stall holders, as we see in the film? It’s because they are feared.

Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the head of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth – I was filming him at events where there would sometimes be two or three radio mikes on him at once. There were multiple people filming him, and he’s saying these misogynist jokes, these outrageous comments you hear in the film, all the time. But nobody ever uses them. He simply knows that no-one in the Indonesian media would dare use these comments. I don’t think he counted on me coming along and using them.

The Act of Killing

 

Do you think anything in Indonesia has really changed since Suharto was toppled? In Australia we’re told Suharto was pushed out, and then Indonesia transitioned to democracy and entered a new era. Whereas your film very much portrays the contemporary era as a continuation of Suharto’s “New Order.”

I think that less has changed than has remained the same. The democracy is the pseudo-democracy you see in the film, where votes are bought, where politicians go into politics as an opportunity for graft, and where they use thugs for their dirty work.

That said, I don’t think I could have made this film in the Suharto years. I would have been under too much surveillance by the military. And the film is helping to change things. A wise, brilliant, younger generation of Indonesians is coming into positions of leadership, without having being accomplices to the events of 1965. And they are open to reconciling themselves with the past, and addressing the problems that stem from the past – the corruption, impunity, fear, and grotesque disparities of wealth that plague the country.

According to Stanley Prasetyo, one of Indonesia’s human rights commissioners, perpetrators in Indonesia no longer boast because of The Act of Killing – it’s no longer acceptable to boast about these events. That means the national understanding of these events is shifting, partly in response to this film, or even more largely in response to the Indonesian media’s in-depth, serious reporting about the genocide as a genocide. That is not something that happened before 2012, when the film came out and when the National Human Rights Commission published an exhaustive 850-page report condemning the violence in 1965 as crime against humanity. So things are changing, things have changed, but there is a long way to go.

You appear to maintain a good relationship with all the killers throughout the making of the film, even though some of them seem increasingly conflicted as the film progresses. Were there any tense moments in your relationship with Anwar, Herman [one of Anwar’s younger friends who helps in the re-enactments] and the others, and did you ever feel threatened by working with killers who still wield so much power?

I think I felt emotionally at risk being so close to Anwar. I never for a second lost my judgement of the crimes that he committed, but I insisted that I never judge him as an entire human being, as a monster. And I let myself become very close to him. That meant I was vulnerable to him when he told horrible stories. That was painful.

Herman didn’t kill people in ’65 – he is a younger generation of thug. He’s Anwar’s protégé.

Overall when you’re making a film like this I think it’s like rock climbing – you don’t look down. That means you can end up in some difficult places. I don’t go to Indonesia now. I may get into Indonesia, but I’m not sure that I’d get out again. And that’s a real source of sadness for me, particularly because the film is transforming the way Indonesians talk about their past. I would like to be there to be part of that – it’s rare in life that you make something that helps make a difference. This film really is, and I would love to be there for that.

The Act of Killing

 

You mentioned earlier the response of Anwar to the documentary. What has been the response of some of the other people who participated in the film?

The high-ranking politicians and paramilitary leaders, I’m sure, hate the film. If they don’t hate the film, I haven’t done my job.

Herman loves the film. Herman, in making the film, fell in love with acting, and developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. I think Herman plays a very important role of gently or forcefully guiding Anwar back to his pain when Anwar gets cold feet. And by the end of the film, Herman is angry. He realises, by spending five years shooting this film, that he is basically a tool for politicians in a movement founded on mass murder that he knows is wrong.

Did Herman not realise the scale of what had happened in ’65 before they started doing these re-enactments?

I think he realised, but didn’t want to think about it. In the same way I realise that the shirt I’m wearing now was made in Bangladesh, and the people who made it may well now be buried in a pile of rubble. Thanks to that I can buy the shirt for six dollars. So Herman, like all of us, uses stories, fantasy, and entertainment to withdraw from reality. And that’s really what the film is about – how we tell stories to escape from our most bitter and indigestible truths.

About The Author

Dan Edwards is a fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures at Melbourne University. His debut monograph, Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2015. He lived and worked in China as a magazine journalist from 2007–11, and before that worked at the Australian Film Commission. He was awarded a PhD in Film and Television from Monash University in 2014.