Inside The Act of Killing’s
“jaw-dropping reality”

Joshua Oppenheimer, whose staggering documentary is essential viewing at the New Zealand International Film Festival, talks in-depth about filming Indonesia’s killer elite.

It’s no overstatement to say that Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing The Act of Killing will leave you mouth agape. Originally conceived as a documentary about the survivors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 (among other Suharto era killings), circumstances forced Oppenheimer to refocus his attention on the perpetrators of the anti-communist purge—men who had participated in the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and Ethnic Chinese, who to this day remain unpunished, and who continue to live their lives through the power and status afforded to them by their state sanctioned crimes. Willingly, though not surprisingly given their shocking impunity, these “free men” as they are known in Sumatra offer a full disclosure of their countless murders, and even more disconcertingly, agree to reenact these horrors through the pretense of American genre movies for Oppenheimer’s camera—an absurd role-play that is the key to understanding the film’s loaded title.

In line with other war crimes that have taken place around the world, official justice remains an elusive—if unspoken—goal for the victims and survivors of Suharto’s western-endorsed regime. Oppenheimer’s film is staggering precisely because it produces the closest thing to an official record of the atrocities committed—from the ‘horse’s mouth’, no less—as well as a present-day account of a dysfunctional society founded on intimidation, corruption, and violence. This documentation alone is an important step towards restitution for a country whose denial and revision of genocide is a troubling common thread in world history. However, Oppenheimer and his co-directors (one who must remain anonymous for fear of reprisal) take things further by allowing for the frightening testimony of their subjects—one in particular, the haunted movie theatre gangster Anwar Congo—to morph into something tormented and surreal, the result of an imaginary discourse with nightmares and ghosts of the past. Reenactment, so often a tool for “cheap dramatisation,” as Oppenheimer calls it, functions here as both a transparent and transformative device through which Anwar tries to escape the killings he participated in through performance, only to eventually find himself confronting the true nature of his act.

Born in Texas and now based in Copenhagen, Oppenheimer initially came to Indonesia to make a film about globalisation (the remnants of which still permeate The Act of Killing), however the finished article moves well beyond the political background of the society he immersed himself in for nearly ten years. At its dark heart, The Act of Killing is a disturbing psychological portrait of killers who are motivated not by ideology, but by wealth and stature, and who, tellingly, build their own personas and spin their own stories as part of a grand narrative of justification. Oppenheimer holds up a mirror to their actions, and remarkably, cracks start to appear. What we glimpse through this fractured image is not so much remorse (that would be going too far), but for a few precious moments, chilling recognition, as witnessed in the film’s gut-wrenching final scenes.

Oppenheimer has rightly rejected the notion of redemption for Anwar and his cohorts, although through the lengthy creative process chronicled, one is left with a sense that Anwar has renounced the violence of his past by the conclusion of the film—an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that recalls the famous ending of A Moment of Innocence, perhaps the most profound use of reenactment in all of cinema. Indeed, Oppenheimer told me that since the release of The Act of Killing, Anwar has been greatly moved by its impact, and has remained loyal to its exposure to all Indonesians. Over coffee at the Sydney Film Festival, he spoke passionately of the human rights agenda behind his film, and openly of the challenges he encountered during its making—situations, such as the extortion of money from Chinese market sellers, that were potentially dangerous and unethical, but through sheer force of will, captured and brought to light through a moral obligation to the ordinary Indonesians he first set out to honour.

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TIM WONG: “Jaw-dropping” is probably the most overused adjective in film reviewing, and yet your film is one of the few that genuinely deserves the tag. Is that an accurate way to describe your experience of shooting the documentary and seeing these extraordinary things unfold before the camera?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: I am just now making a new film that involves going back to some of the very early material that lead into The Act of Killing. It’s interesting, because people have described the film as an analogy for a journey into the heart of darkness, and it really struck me that, when looking at the first material I filmed of the perpetrators, it was the provocation in my life that lead me to make The Act of Killing—that in fact it was “jaw-dropping” from the very start.

The situation was jaw-dropping, and the film was my response to that situation. Here I was in a place, friends with, living with, close to survivors, trying to make a film with them about their experiences of 1965, but also their experience of living in a regime that has repressed them ever since. And all around us are the people who killed their relatives and are boasting about it. Meanwhile, when I would film with a person whose aunt was killed, for instance, the police would come and try to stop us. Which also didn’t make any sense—it was about intimidating the survivors into silence rather than keeping the story secret, because the perpetrators were telling me the story openly. So that was jaw-dropping. At the same time, it was jaw-dropping in the sense that it demanded a deep response. This was back in 2002-2003, ten years ago. It demanded somehow that I do whatever is necessary to expose the situation, to investigate it, and to understand it. But I also came to understand that even though it’s jaw-dropping, it’s also not remote.

I originally came to Indonesia to make a film about globalisation. From the very beginning, I was thinking about the ways this violence is systemic and is not characteristic simply of a distant world. Indonesia is very close to Australia—it’s very far from where I live—but actually it’s the underbelly of our world. Everything we’re wearing, everything we’re using; my Kindle, your computer, this iPhone—these things are all made by people in factories which are invariably located in places where there has been mass violence, and the perpetrators are somehow still in power.  And they use the fact that they have the liberty to make their own history to keep everyone afraid, and thereby keep everyone who makes everything we buy too afraid to struggle to get the human cost of production incorporated into the price tag that we pay. So that means that we all depend on the jaw-dropping reality we see in The Act of Killing. We all depend on it for our daily survival, and that’s very unfortunate, and it takes a toll of us. Just like at the end of the film, we think Anwar and his friends have maybe escaped justice. But they haven’t somehow escaped punishment; they’re all damaged by what they’ve done in different ways. I think we too are damaged by this jaw-dropping reality, our everyday lives.

TW: The appalling pride that the killers express, you witnessed this over and over again in the many interviews that you conducted before you came to Anwar?

JO: Yes. That’s the material I am going back to.

TW: Did Anwar represent a breakthrough?

JO: Anwar wasn’t particularly a breakthrough. One of my methods was to film these people and get them to tell me what they did. Sometimes, every so often, they would want to take me to the places they killed, and they would want to show me how they did it. Afterwards, they would typically complain that they hadn’t brought things along to use as props like machetes or friends to play fellow killers or victims. So there was an impulse to show, to boast, to demonstrate, to perform. I was getting from the forty men I filmed before I came to Anwar a kind of performance as opposed to testimony, and that of course comes from the fact that these men had won and still had open to them the opportunity to justify, or the possibility to justify, what they had done. They are performing something, doing something through their boasting, and I was trying to understand what they were doing.

Another of my methods after I would film people doing this was to show them back the footage. Through these performances of atrocity, I could see in the boasting about killing that these men were in denial. So to see how deep that denial ran, and the nature of that denial, and the meaning of that denial, I would screen back the reenactments for the perpetrators as a distancing device. And I was prepared each time I did this for the process to end. Because I thought they would recognise exactly the thing that they’re in denial of, realise it was wrong, and stop.

When I filmed Anwar on the roof dancing at the beginning of the film, that’s the first time I ever filmed with him. Virtually the second or third day, a few scenes later in the film, he watches that material back. I was prepared for the process to end there, and to make a film out of the 41 men, including Anwar, that I had filmed. I was prepared for Anwar to say this makes me look bad. As soon as were done filming, I assumed he would call the police or the military, and we would be arrested. I had all of our bags packed, I had the Indonesian production manager at the airport with a lot of cash ready to buy tickets for everybody to evacuate Medan if she did not receive a text message from us saying everything’s okay.

Anwar watches the material, and he looks disturbed. He’s not disturbed about how he looks, though; he’s disturbed about what happened on that roof. But he doesn’t dare say it because he’s never had to justify it. He’s never had to say what he’s done is wrong. He’s instead been able to justify it because he, and the whole regime that ordered the killings, are still in power. And so, instead of saying it was wrong, he takes that unpleasant feeling that we see very clearly in the close-up of him—the sense that something’s very wrong with what he’s just seen—and he displaces it onto his clothes and onto his hair. And so begins this five-year journey in which he uses the filmmaking process to run away from the true horror. He’s unable and unwilling to recognise the true horror of what he’s done. His pain was close to the surface—maybe that’s why I lingering on him, and maybe that’s why he takes the reenactments to another level. But I wasn’t looking for that breakthrough. I probably had enough to understand something important, but Anwar takes it to a deeper level.

TW: This is more than a simply case of compliance, isn’t it? These men aren’t simply carrying out orders for fear of being branded communist sympathisers—although that partly comes into it. They are also motivated by the power and status afforded to them as soldiers of the communist purge.

JO: And they are in power because they kill, because they participate in the communist purge. Or they’re the protégés of the powerful men who participated in it.

TW: Prior to becoming “free men”—in other words, above the law—were they just lowly “movie theatre thugs”?

JO: Well, lowly is the wrong word. As movie theatre thugs, they’re not just selling tickets on the black market—that was a side business, the income is insignificant from the tickets. They were running Medan’s prostitution ring, drugs, smuggling, illegal logging. They were doing big business and hanging out in the cinemas because they were young men and that was the cool place to hang out. And they were organised from the early sixties. They were incorporated into the youth militia of this fascist right wing political party [Pancasila Youth] affiliated with the right wing leadership of the army. So they had this dual political criminal role before the killings, and they were groomed in the years leading up to the killings to go after the communists at the right moment.

TW: Is there an element of free will in what they’re doing? Do you think they’re self-aware of the killing, and that they have a choice?

JO: Do you mean are they brainwashed into killing?

TW: Well, is there an ideological justification for their actions?

JO: I think it’s difficult. I think the question of free will is much more interesting than it appears at first. I don’t think that anybody I filmed fundamentally was killing for ideological reasons. I think everybody was killing for the same reasons: power and money. And Adi [Zulkadry, co-leader of North Sumatra’s most notorious death squad, Pasukan Kodok] says it very eloquently in the film: “Killing is the worst crime you can do. The key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse. If the compensation is right, then of course I’ll do it, and from one perspective it’s not wrong. That’s the perspective we must make ourselves believe. After all, morality is relative.” And that’s an amazing, almost oxymoronic, statement. We always do things bad, and make up excuses for our parents, teachers, or authority figures. Make up an excuse that you can tell yourself to justify it so you can live with yourself. Which means, Adi is presuming that you already don’t believe your own excuse, so the excuse is the ideological justification. The rationale for the killing is not anti-communism as a kind of ideal, but the desire for power and money, and I think if you go all the way up the chain of command to the mastermind behind the whole thing, Suharto, he was also about power and money.

I don’t think anyone had any particular feelings, one way or the other, that fascism, which is what they fought for, was better than communism. And they knew that most of the people they were killing weren’t communists at all. But then the question of free will is even more interesting than that. Because they’re killing for one reason, for power and for money, but then they’re justifying it to themselves, and free will is lost in that justification. If I kill somebody for power or for money, and then you say, “Josh, that was an excellent thing to do, that was really heroic, that was great,” and I say, “no it was awful, it was sickening, I can’t sleep, this is destroying me,” and then you say, “no, it’s okay Josh, look me in the eye, that was good,” and I eventually agree, only for you to say, “okay, now kill that one for the same reason,” now I have to, right? Is that free will? Once there’s an ideological justification, is that still free will? Or do I have to, so I can live with myself for the first killing.

So the justification, even if it’s cynical, demands for their evil. And even more radically, if I’m killing someone for power or money on my own volition, no one’s forced me to, is that free will? Where did the values that led to killing someone because they’re threatening my lifestyle hanging out at the cinema come from? Where does that acute shallowness come from? Is it a state of freedom, or is it blindness? That’s what the film is really about. It’s about how we justify our actions through storytelling, and how we make our world through narrative. And that narrative can be second hand and third rate and utterly banal.

TW: As we see in the film, the act of telling, the creative act, becomes a means for the gangsters to distance themselves from the past. The fact that they’re reimagining these killings in the form of American genre pictures is absurd, but it’s really just part of the cycle of justification.

JO: Except through that, they become a cinematic prism through which some kind of fractured self-recognition begins to occur.

TW: Reenactment is certainly not new to documentary. Usually though, it’s to bring the human subjects closer to the events of the past, whereas in your film, it’s something altogether different and disturbing. Though not unlike what we see in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

JO: Or in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine.

TW: If you remember, in the Herzog documentary, Dieter Dengler retraces his steps through the jungle towards the prison camp, and there are local Thai men who have been recruited to play the Phahet Lao foot soldiers who escorted him. And there comes a point where it becomes all too real for him…

JO: This is a good and rare use of reenactment. Usually, reenactment is just used as cheap dramatisation.

TW: Have you seen a Cambodian documentary called Golden Slumbers? It concerns Cambodia’s once thriving film industry, which was systematically wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. What the filmmaker [Davy Chou] does is he goes back to the survivors of the film industry, as well as cinephiles who were around at the time, and asks them to reconstruct the films they remember from that “golden” period, because they’ve all been destroyed.

JO: That’s the same thing that happened to the pre-1965 Indonesian films.

TW: Exactly. So it’s about reclaiming a stolen past. Incidentally, another Cambodian film that relies on recreation [The Missing Picture, also screening at NZIFF 2013] won a prize at Cannes this year.

JO: Rithy [Panh]’s film? I haven’t seen his new one, but when I mentioned S-21 [an earlier film by Panh] a moment ago, that’s a masterful use of reenactment.

TW: Was there any consideration on your part, during the filming of the reenactments, to propose to Anwar to reenact a killing, but instead of going through with it, show the victim mercy?

JO: That did come up. No one’s ever asked me that before, but in fact we did that.

TW: I wonder if he would have been receptive to the idea?

JO: I’m trying to remember exactly what happened. I’m sure it was disappointing, otherwise it would have lead to something that’s in the film…

The portal to authenticity for Anwar was somehow always via the real. When I proposed it, I remember he was fine to try it, but it was a mechanical exercise, because he knew he never did it. And I think he was disassociated from the moral, distanced from the moral implications of doing it, the hypothetical reenactment, the pre-enactment, as Peter Watkins called it. I just remember it was cold and felt contrived, because it wasn’t coming from him.

The key thing about my approach, by the time I met Anwar, was to show him that he’s participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, that his whole society is based on it, that lives continue to be shaken by it. If he wants to show me what he’s done, I want to know what it means to him. I could, of course, have made suggestions for things that didn’t really happen, or things that could have happened, but it felt like it was a kind of violation of the principal that was keeping everything authentic. I wasn’t making a psychodrama, I wasn’t striving for transformation or remorse. The fact that some kind of transformation and regret occurred, it was almost in spite of my main project, which was to use these reenactments to expose how a whole regime has been built and imagines itself, and with the impunity on which it is based. It felt like… not a violation, that’s too strong a word, but out of step with the main process we were going through.

If you took a Khmer Rouge perpetrator and asked them to do this, they know they cannot justify what they’ve done anymore, right? Not really. Maybe to themselves in their private moments. But because Anwar is still able to justify what he’s done, because he’s still in power, it’s very easy for him to run away from a challenge like that, and say, “Oh, we never gave them mercy because they didn’t deserve it.” And if I pressed the point, “what if,” which I’m sure I did, he could retreat and say, “I’ll go through this only because you want me to.” It doesn’t come across authentically, because it’s not something he wants to go through with.

TW: Cambodia recently passed a law that makes the denial of the Khmer Rouge genocide illegal. Do you think Indonesia will ever reach that point?

JO: I hope we get to a point like that, but at the moment the film has come to Indonesia like the child in the emperor’s new clothes, pointing at the king, and saying the king is naked. Everybody knew it already, but was too afraid to say so. The film has helped bring us to a point where the whole country is finally acknowledging the atrocities as atrocities. The media for the first time is publishing in-depth reports about the genocide and so forth. Academics and scholars have been doing that for a long time, but the media is really looking at it now, and even ordinary, younger Indonesians are now looking at it.

But the government still remains silent. The national human rights commission published an 850-page report last August about the atrocities, stating that this is a crime against humanity and it demands a presidential apology. The commission only has the right to make recommendations to the attorney general’s office, and the attorney general, instead of accepting the report, rejected it on the grounds of lack of evidence. This is a thorough 850-page report with data from almost every province in Indonesia, so we’re very far from that point.

TW: There are many upsetting scenes in your film. Even though it pales in comparison to all the murders that are described, the scene that upset me the most was when we see you follow the gangsters as they extort money from local Chinese businesses. I take it this racism towards Ethnic Chinese is still prevalent?

JO: It was a simple scene to gain access to because by then I was very close to Herman and Safit. All I had to ask was, “Can I follow you to work one day?” So it was like a day in the life of two of my characters. When I understood what their work was, which of course I knew long before I shot this scene, there were huge ethical dilemmas. Should I film this? I talked at length with my wonderful Indonesian crew. They assured me that not only should you film this; you have the obligation to film this. Because this is happening in every market in every Indonesian town or village, where Chinese people live, across this whole country of 250 million people, multiple times a day. And no one has ever filmed it before. Everyone knows it, but no one even dares talk about it in the media.

Filming it, my concern was that the camera would make Herman and Safit appear even more powerful to the Chinese market sellers—as if their tormentors had turned up with a TV crew, with impunity in front of the media, to extort them. What I did to deal with that was actually stupid in hindsight. I told Herman and Safit to move on, and that I would linger back and get a release form signed from whomever we’ve just filmed. The real reason I lingered back was to explain why we were there. To say I’m really sorry, that this must have been scary, and that we’re not here to promote them. That was a mistake in hindsight because I endangered me and my crew. If they [the market sellers] had spoken to the wrong person, they wouldn’t be in trouble, I would be. And they have every reason to ingratiate themselves with Herman and Safit. Luckily, that didn’t happen. But it was a mistake. The other thing I did was to pay them back. We watched exactly how much money they gave to Herman and Safit. We came with a lot of cash that day—it was one of the most expensive observational shoots that I’ve ever been involved with—and paid each person back. And if there are three people in the film, then we must have filmed twenty. It was a lot of money.

TW: I’m glad to hear that, because filming those scenes, I’m sure your gut instinct would have been to intervene, even though you possibly couldn’t have. What you’re doing is so dangerous. It was Susan Sontag who wrote that photography is essentially an act of non-intervention. But in fact, what you’ve achieved with that scene is an act of intervention. The recording of it, and the release of it is the intervention.

JO: There’s another scene like that which was ethically complicated. I should say there are two other places that viewers always identify as “hotspots”. One of them is the Kampung Kolam village massacre. I won’t go into depth, except to say that it’s a set, all of the victims in the film are played by the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators, and they’re comforted immediately afterwards. It looks a lot worse than it is. There’s one woman who faints. She in fact hyperventilated. I don’t think it was because of deep trauma. But it looks powerful in the film.

The other one, which is a little more complicated, was the scene where the stepson of the Chinese victim recalls his memory of the incident, participates in the reenactment, and experiences real trauma. That I should say is an error on my part. We were in this TV studio, and I was filming with Adi in one part of the studio with my anonymous co-director. Meanwhile, Suryono [Anwar’s neighbour] is telling his story to the other guys who are filming him. And I didn’t hear the story. I wasn’t there. I only heard the story after coming home a few months later with 600 hours of footage, cutting the main scenes from that shoot, then going back and logging all the side conversations to see if I had missed anything. If I had heard it first, I would have absolutely pulled him aside and said, “What are you doing here? Stay behind the camera for the rest of the day, I’ll give you something to do. Tomorrow don’t come back, say you’re sick, because you shouldn’t be here. This is going to get too painful.” It was an error of omission rather than an error of commission, but an error nonetheless.

After I put the film together and saw how awful it looked, I felt very exposed, because it’s not something I would not have allowed to occur if I had heard the story at the time. But I also felt it was very important to be honest, because that’s what they did, they heard the story, and then promptly made him play the victim. So I showed it, but had misgivings, and I also had questions about why was he there. I found an old call sheet with his number on it, I called him and his wife answered the phone, and told me that Suryono had passed away from complications of diabetes. This is now two and a half years after the shoot. I asked her why did he participate in the film, and did he ever talk about it, and she said, “Yes, he had this awful experience as a child, and wanted it to be seen, wanted the public to know what he went through.” And in that sense, I understood why he wanted to be there, and in a way I’m glad I didn’t know, because if I had known, I would have pulled him out. But he actually succeeded in giving the film this immense extra power that it wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I wouldn’t have allowed either, because I’m not a director who will stop at nothing.

TW: Anwar’s cohorts at one point joke that he looks African, and he in fact looks a lot like Nelson Mandela. This is ironic. Naturally, he’s the central character of your film, however, an interesting supporting character is his partner in crime, Herman Koto [a gangster and paramilitary leader]. He’s a fascinating and frightening presence, and seems to thrive in front of the camera. He really takes to the idea of performing.

JO: Herman has a much stronger role in the director’s cut [screening at NZIFF 2013] than in the theatrical version. He’s someone who we had to pull back. I think he plays a very important role, and you’re absolutely right. He discovers acting along the way. He comes into the film as a younger thug, and he embraces acting. And he somehow discovers an actor’s loyalty to the truth, which every decent actor has to have. In any situation, you have to be loyal to the emotional truth of the situation, and in this case, at least locally, at least in the scene itself, that’s moral truth. When you’re playing a mother who is trying to save herself and her baby by giving up a child, that’s a pretty strong emotional and moral situation. He knows which side is right there. And he therefore is able to act well. He becomes loyal to the truth, and becomes a kind of truth bearer. A bearer of truth for Anwar. Someone who forces Anwar back to the truth. So whenever Anwar starts to get cold feet and withdraw from the process, Herman pushes him back to it. Like in the scene where he’s literally shoving entrails in his face.

There’s this wonderful moment where he’s shoving the penis in his face right after we’ve heard this story from the paramilitary leader about a prostitute giving a blowjob to six men in a car. Herman, through the dreamlike logic of that sequence in the film, has become the woman who is made to do this, and is shoving the dick back in Anwar’s face. Even though Anwar wasn’t part of that story. Somehow, he’s constantly bringing Anwar back to the truth, and indeed he loves the film. Herman and Anwar are aware. When you ask Anwar what he doesn’t like in the film, it’s all the scenes where people are hypocritical. So he hates Adi’s hypocrisy when he’s driving in the car. And he hates the journalist who denies any knowledge and so forth.

TW: When Herman is severing Anwar’s fake head, for a moment there, I thought he was really crying.

JO: In the studio, when he’s severing the head, I think he was really emotional there. Now that I think about it, afterwards he was like, “I was really crying!” And then he got furious with the TV director on set, who says, “Now pick up the head and start laughing.” And he does laugh. And it’s a very painful laugh. It’s like he’s forcing himself to laugh like you would force yourself to shit if you were constipated. It’s like he doesn’t want to laugh. He wants to cry. And you’re absolutely right. That emotion, that authenticity, the sense that there’s a moral compass, even if there’s no analysis or political awareness, is all at work in that final moment where he’s drumming at the very end of the film.

The Act of Killing’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

MAIN IMAGE: (Left to right) Herman Koto, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, Joshua Oppenheimer.

Tim Wong is the founder and editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012.


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