A bowl of freshly cut strawberries sits between me and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. We don’t touch them. Delicious fruit isn’t exactly appetizing for a conversation about mass murder—so we stick to our black coffees. Although welcoming and open as a person, Oppenheimer has made a film so chilling that, having watched it the night before, a strange aftertaste still lingers in my mouth. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film—I did, very much. But it’s a film that haunts you well after the credits have rolled.
The brilliant Texas-born director’s latest film, The Act of Killing, exposes its frightening subjects with a generosity and candor that you’re at once drawn to, yet viscerally unable to wrestle with. What you’re hearing and seeing on screen so unnerving that it almost feels like fiction. Executive produced by documentary film legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s work focuses on the perpetrators behind the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-1960s, a mass murdering of communists and Chinese by the death squad leaders who ushered in a regime of fear over the nation. But rather than simply tell the overarching story of these heinous acts, he worked with these now aged and troubled leaders to recreate their crimes in a highly theatrical and shocking way. Having murdered over a million people, one of the men to lead in the atrocity was Anwar Congo, whom Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses in on.
In a groundbreaking and uniquely evocative way to approach the subject, they reenact their crimes, playing out like homages to the American films that these gangsters idealized. Having spent years working in Indonesia, hearing these men’s stories and the plight of the survivors, he gives a raw and extremely personal look into the imagination and psyche of Anwar and his contemporaries. The film exists in the dichotomy of pure evil without remorse and the denial of that villainy in order to survive, and the result is a brilliantly executed exploration into a horrifying truth never before uncovered.
A couple weeks ago, Oppenheimer and I sat down to discuss the paradox of these murders’ behavior, the distinct way he went about telling this story, and the enormous effect it has had on the Indonesian people.
It’s hard to say I really enjoyed the film, but I thought it was very powerful. What was so unnerving to me, more so than the actual act of what they were doing, was the lack of remorse, or the way they’d speak so casually about it. Was that dichotomy between seeing the act and hearing about it so nonchalantly something that drove you to want to portray this?
There are two things going on, actually, in the sense that when I began this work, my primary moral commitment in making The Act of Killing was to a community of survivors in the human rights community in Indonesia—both exposing what had happened but also the nature of the regime of fear that had been built on the basis of celebrating mass killing. Primarily, the task or the goal was to unmask this regime for Indonesians themselves, not to expose it to foreign viewers—although the fact that it does that is fine. When I started the film, I saw the boasting about atrocities as an allegory for impunity, as exemplifying impunity, as an instance in which a whole regime had come to regard it as acceptable to celebrate atrocity—and in that sense, it was the fodder for an expose. On the other, the main character in The Act of Killing, Anwar, he was the 41st perpetrator with whom I filmed. But they were all open like that, and that scene on the roof was the very first time I filmed with him and the very second day I knew him. By the time I met them they were all boastful and all welcoming to take me to the places where they killed, showed me how they’d gone about it, launching into these very spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed.
I was asking myself: precisely what is the nature of this boasting, why are they boasting, for whom are they boasting, how do they want to be seen, how do they think I would see them? I would film them telling these horrible things in front of their grandchildren and think: how do they want their grandchildren to remember them when they die, and ultimately how do they see themselves? And yet, I think what’s unsettling about the film in part—and what I hope viewers take from it—is that the boasting is not what it seems necessarily. At first we see it as a sign of total lack of remorse, which I think it’s not, and we also see it as a sign of immunity, which it is. When I say it’s not a lack of remorse, what I mean is—take the scene on the roof with Anwar showing the killings with the wire. Then he launches into the cha cha and there’s hardly a greater outrage that he could do in that spot. But he says he’s a good dancer because he’s been drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing trying to forget what he’s done. So his conscience and his trauma is present from the very start, and he’s trying to deny it, and so much of the boasting, it turns out, is a desperate effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.
Because how is he supposed to live and look in the mirror everyday if not?
Exactly. And so then there’s a paradox there which crept on me just as I think it creeps up on viewers: the boasting and the lack of remorse is actually the opposite. It’s a sign of humanity. And this symptom of being human and finding it difficult, traumatic, and wrong to kill and knowing that it’s wrong to kill is underpinning these grotesque justifications, even celebration of killing. I’m sure if you or I had killed and got away with it, yet had the opportunity to justify what we’d done because we got away with it and because we got encouraged to do it by the state or whatever, I’m sure we would, because otherwise, like you said, you have to look yourself in the mirror and see a murderer.
But this paradox becomes tragic because having once killed and having it justified, that demands that you commit further evil, that you kill again. Because if now if I killed and I come to you and say, “It was awful, it was terrible, it made me ill, I’m having nightmares, it made me sick,” and you look me in the eye and say, “No, look me in the eye, never say that it was fine, you did the right thing.” And I say, “No, no, it was awful it made me sick, I can’t live with myself,” and you say, “No, no you did the right thing it was correct, look me in the eye.” And then out of desperation I say, “Okay, it was right,” and then you say to me, “Now kill that person for the same reason.” Well then I have to—otherwise it was like admitting it was wrong the first time. So there’s this downward spiral of moral corruption and evil that destroys Anwar, but has also destroyed a whole regime and the values of a whole system.
And even the victims and the people living in these communities. It’s so engrained in their daily lives that these threats are present and know that the people who’ve killed those they loved, and more often than not very brutally, are living right beside them. What brought you into these people’s lives?
In 2001 I knew nothing about Indonesia. But I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London in making a transition from trying to make fiction films to making something much more immediate that was more of a hybrid form. A friend asked me would I like to try to really develop those methods but in the context of film about globalization and working with a community struggling to organize a union amidst terrible conditions in a place where unions had recently been illegal. I could have been sent to Columbia, India, or a variety of places for this and I was sent to Indonesia and found myself in this plantation community. This was a community of survivors and the women workers were spraying a herbicide which was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s. They were struggling to organize a union so that they could get this herbicide banned and their biggest obstacle in the union had been fear. Because their parents and grandparents had been in a union and until 1965 they were accused of being communist sympathizers because of that—like the witch-hunting and McCarthyism in the states. They were put in concentration camps and then dispatched by the local army to local death squads to be killed.
This was my first encounter with this history. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor in this village turned out to be someone who had been the manager of the whole plantation because he’d wiped out the communists there. I asked him what he meant by that and he said the union members were all pro-communist and he would beat them up until they were unconscious and men would bring them to him one by one and they’d beat them up and then drown them in an irrigation ditch when they were unconscious. And he told this story laughingly in front of his ten-year-old granddaughter who watched as if she’s heard this many times before. And that’s when I first encountered the boasting. So I made this film about the union and then went back immediately because I felt like this was a huge story and a very important opportunity to explore how we build our normality on the basis of terror and lies and how we justify our actions with storytelling. I saw it like wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and finding the Nazis still in power. I felt this situation will demand of me whatever it requires and I will give it whatever it takes. And I don’t think I knew that I would then spend eleven years on this, but I did.
How long have you been in contact with Anwar and how did the film develop for your initial theme of wanting to expose this regime of fear?
I worked with Anwar for seven years. After I made the first film, I spent a year trying to make a film with survivors. We would constantly be arrested, stopped by the military, and told we weren’t allowed to film with them. It was terrifying and we thought we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. So we talked about how we would succeed and one of the survivors said, “Josh, film the perpetrators. You met them, they will all boast like that and appear to be proud and the audience, when they see that, will see both why we’re afraid and also the nature of this regime and show Indonesians what they don’t want to see or have been too afraid to acknowledge.” I worked in close collaboration with some of those survivors but also an Indonesian crew—some were human rights activists, some were literary theory, it was an eclectic bunch—with the sense to make an Indonesian film for Indonesians. But that gradually turned into The Act of Killing.
Did it take time to build their trust and have someone like Anwar open himself up to you? Did his fascination with American cinema entice him at all to be a part of this?
That may have helped with Anwar, because I’m American and because he loves American movies. He’s always loved movies because when you kill—even if you’re not a movie theater gangster like Anwar was—that execution of cutting off people’s heads, the moment of having that horrible exorbitant power makes you feel, in that moment, that you are somehow the star of your own movie and the most important person in the world.
And requires you to totally disassociated from reality from your own life.
Yes, and from the community of human beings. You feel as if you’ve transcended everybody, that you’ve violated the taboo—thou shall not kill. He was the 41st killer I filmed and the first 30 I filmed were just cutting people’s heads off in batches, they were getting bus loads of people from the army and cutting people’s heads off one by one. They were not watching movies, they had no particular relationship to American movies, they were maybe drinking alcohol before so they could cope with it, and basically they were all open. But I think the method of the film and the form the film ultimately takes is not a lure get them to open up, rather, it’s a response to their openness and an attempt to try. To build their trust I simply had to be nice.
By the time I met Anwar, I could even be fairly open about my shock. Maybe in the first couple meetings I couldn’t say “this is horrible,” but down the road I could say this is disturbing to hear and be pretty open about it. Before I met Anwar, this was my pitch and how I’d approach people, I’d say: I got your name from so and so, I’m here to find out what you did in the 60s. You participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your life is shaped by it, I want to understand what it means to you, you want to tell me about it, I don’t know if you want to show me what you’ve done but all of your colleagues have wanted to, and so show me what you’ve done in whatever way you wish. I want to understand what it means to you and your society, I want to understand how you want to be seen, how you see it, how you want the world to see it, maybe deeply unconsciously you see it, so show me and I’ll film the process and the making of these reenactments and I’ll combine the material. I don’t know what kind of film it will be but we’ll see.
I think I had in mind that it would be a documentary of these men’s imaginations rather than their everyday lives. I wasn’t looking for an Anwar, I felt that I was gathering information of world historical importance and I felt like it was my obligation to record these stories, lest they should be lost as these men grow old and die. I expected to make a film with many of the perpetrators from across the region and then I lingered on Anwar because I realized in this remorse that was underpinning Anwar’s own motive for making the film, in this trauma or brokenness was the most powerful possible expose of the rot.
Where did the idea come from to reenact these killings in such a highly theatrical manner. It’s extremely jarring and allows you even to disassociate from what they’ve done because it feels almost too chilling to be real.
That idea came to me out of meeting the movie theater gangsters. I was always somebody who thought that observational documentary is a myth. I feel like the idea of a fly on the wall is a lie, a fiction that we tell, a story that we tell about footage that we shoot so that the audience suspends their disbelief and appreciates the fiction that it is. If I follow you around for the day saying that I’m a fly on the wall, in fact the big event in your day is me. So in that sense, every time we film somebody we create reality with that person, and my sense is that as a filmmaker our responsibility is to create whatever reality is most insightful to the questions we’re trying to answer. And here I’m trying to understand how these men want to be seen, how do they think the world sees, how do they see themselves and what is the nature of a whole regime built upon this?
When I found out the army had recruited its killers from the ranks of these thugs that had this love for American movies and they started to suggest these elaborate dramatizations in the style of their favorite films, I realized, okay, if I continue doing what I said to them and allowed them to do this too, this will be the best way to answer these questions. So it came when I reached these men who actually had this love affair with American movies. And it started very organically like you see in the film. Anwar danced on the roof, I showed that footage back to him—I thought if he danced on the roof he must be in utter denial of what he did there, of the moral meaning of what he did there—so I screened that back to him to see if he would recognize some of what he’s done in the mirror of the footage and he looks very disturbed when he watches it, I think he is, and he’s very disturbed about what he did on the roof but he doesn’t dare say so.
But all he can say say is, “I would never wear white pants, I look like I’m dressed for a picnic.”
And we think he’s going to say, “this makes me look bad or what have I done,” but he doesn’t dare because he’s never been forced to say anything like that—so what does he do with that feeling? He places it onto the clothes. If you think about it, what’s fueling that embellishment is his conscious from the outset and through every reenactment he stages. you of course have to be in total denial of the moral meaning of what you’ve done. So each reenactment he stages is an insistence of that denial, it’s an insistence that, “no this was nothing more than a movie.” In that sense he’s desperately trying to run away from what he’s done even though the stylization, the creation of these intimate spaces —like in the film noir scenes when it suddenly becomes quite real for him—lead him back to the horror in which he’s trying to run away. So the film therefore walks this tightrope of repulsion on the one hand, where we’re repelled by the one thing he’s done and exposing the nature of that, and then a man struggling to escape what he’s done and that’s where we empathize with a man struggling.
Did he, or any of the men for that matter, express concern over exposing their own vulnerability on screen? I’m thinking to that scene in particular between Adi Zulkadry and Anwar where he’s telling Adi about his nightmares and Adi tells him to go to a psychiatrist. Was he worried that opening up in that way to an audience would make him look weak, even though he was still in denial of why he really should go.
They’re very different men. Anwar is trying to confide in his old best friend and tell him about these nightmares. But Adi had come in saying the killing were wrong, the propaganda that the government said was the lie, we were the bad guys, and he tells all this stuff to Anwar. I took it at face value when he came in and thought this man has a really progressive perspective on this, and he tells this to Anwar and Anwar responds by saying that it’s not that easy for him and that he needs to insist on the propaganda and insist that they were right because if he doesn’t, the flood gates open.
And his whole life is destroyed.
Yes, and Adi then almost becomes troubled by his old friend’s hauntedness and responds by trivializing what Anwar’s saying. He tells him, “Oh you just have a neurological problem,” and he switches between neurologist and psychiatrist—it’s one of the funny aspects of that scene. It turns out, that’s the beginning of Adi’s arc in the film, closing down and retreating from all the progressive things at the beginnings and saying we should hide that and then Anwar starts to open up.
As a filmmaker, how do you remove yourself from the emotion of the scene you’re shooting and be present in the moment behind the camera? How are you able to look objectively at these people and not be paralyzed by your own shock or horror?
At the beginning, you know that what you’re filming is really important. You’re finding out the details of how your friend’s loved ones died and as shocked as you are, you know it’s important. So you deliver and do your job and you film and you listen. Then by the time I met Anwar, I was no longer so shocked, but I never forgot my condemnation of the crimes these men committed. However, I insisted to myself, as a rule, that I would condemn the whole person who did it, because the moment you condemn the perpetrator as a monster, as a psychopath, or as an evil human being full stop, you actually dismiss a whole person, as entire life. Probably the reason you do that is to reassure yourself that you’re not like that, but the moment you do that, you close down any possibility of understanding how we as a human beings do this to each other.
Every act of evil committed in our history is committed by human beings like us, and if we care, if we make films about these issues in order to gain insight into how these things happen so we can prevent these things from happening again, we have to actually look at the reality of what happens. So I had this rule that I see Anwar as a human being and if I ever felt furious or disturbed or so angry that I couldn’t see him as a person, I would stop and take a day out or whatever I needed to and come back as one human being filming another again. That made it painful also and I don’t know if I ever liked him, but I definitely have love for him as a person. Anwar has seen the film and is okay with the film and he and I are in touch fairly regularly, even as the film is primarily embraced.
How has Indonesia been affected by the film?
It’s screening very widely in Indonesia at these big screenings by invitation or in universities. As of the beginning of April there have been 500 screenings in 95 cities and it’s getting bigger every week. Mainstream Indonesian media has started to publish really in-depth investigations of the genocide as a genocide because of the film, perpetrators no longer boast about what they’ve done because of the film, and the official story about the killings is no longer accepted by ordinary Indonesians because of it. The film has come to Indonesia like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing at the king and saying “Look! the King’s naked and everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it.” So it’s functioned as we wished.
But just to go back, once you’re close to someone, you’re vulnerable to them. So Anwar would tell these awful things and it would be really painful and it gave me nightmares. When he did the film noir scenes, which culminate with him playing the victim, that was particularly horrific and it was about nine days of shooting. I couldn’t sleep throughout that and I would have nightmares and then the next night I would be afraid of the nightmares and not sleep and then have more nightmares, and so on. That cycle of insomnia and nightmares went on for about six months, but my anonymous Indonesian crew was the most important ballast for keeping me sane and vice versa, we really tried to support each other so it was bearable.