In the fall of 1965, the Indonesian military began a coup against the government. Over the next year, the army systematically eliminated its opponents — including union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese who were declared “Communists” and led to their deaths. Self-declared “gangsters” and paramilitaries executed between 100,000 and 2 million people; estimates vary widely because few records were kept, and because those guilty of the killings have remained in power ever since, making no secret of their past.
When Joshua Oppenheimer started interviewing the Indonesian killers for his documentary, The Act of Killing, he found men eager to boast about what they’d done. One, the nattily dressed, seemingly avuncular Anwar Congo, demonstrated an improvised garrote he’d created, then broke into an elegant dance routine. He told Oppenheimer that Elvis Presley musicals put him in a great mood for killing. Recognizing how cinema had influenced Anwar and his fellow gangsters, the filmmaker proposed a unique sort of collaboration: the killers would re-enact their crimes for Oppenheimer’s cameras, through whatever story or genre they thought appropriate.
The result is a disconcerting experience, where death-squad leaders play their victims in film noir-inflected scenes, or receive medals from the imagined dead in hallucinatory musical numbers. They ham it up for the camera, then pensively wonder if they’re revealing too much. Anwar plays himself as outwardly happy, but creates a fearsome, demonic spirit that he says visits him in dreams. Throughout it all, Oppenheimer’s “documentary” floats somewhere between fiction and reality, a fever dream of history, murder, and guilt.
The decade-long project drew the attention of both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who signed on as executive producers; Herzog called it “so powerful, so frightening, and so surreal, it would take a decade until you see another film of that caliber.” Oppenheimer has since taken The Act of Killing around the world, leaving many audiences equally stunned. With the film beginning to screen across the US, Oppenheimer discusses the relationship between storytelling and guilt, what it’s like to visit a society where killers are not shunned but admired, and how the next generation of Indonesians are dealing with their collective past.
Let’s start with the title. It’s ambiguous, referencing the 1965–66 genocide only obliquely. Why did you choose the title?
The title has a number of meanings. It suggests we look curiously at what it means for human beings to kill, which moves the question a little bit away from the specific context of the Indonesian massacres of 1965, asking viewers therefore to see the film in a more universal way. I think that’s important, because the film is fundamentally about how we as human beings use storytelling to create our reality, to justify our actions, and to cope, or to escape from even our most bitter and painful truths. So that universality encourages viewers to see the film, yes, as a dark mirror held up to Anwar and Indonesian society, but also a dark mirror held up to all of us.
"The film is fundamentally about how we as human beings use storytelling to create our reality."
Also, the act of killing is something only human beings do. Some rodents will eat their young, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos will kill from time to time. But killing on a mass scale, fantasizing about killing, imagining killing, indulging in killing, paying money to go a cinema and watch beautifully wrought images of people killing and dying — these are profoundly human activities, and they’re mysterious and unsettling. When you start to ask why we do these things, the answers are elusive and the question is mysterious and unsettling.
Of course, there’s also the double meaning in the title: the film is also about men who are acting out memories of killing, and the feelings they have about killing.
Further still, the title suggests the ways in which, as much as killing is a human activity, it also is a cinematic activity, and that when they kill, human beings somehow need to distance themselves from the act of killing. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I filmed as I was working on the issue of the 1965–66 genocide. The first 30 or so were hauling people down to a river and cutting their heads off with the help of the army. They were killing busloads of people every night, and they were helping distance themselves from the act of killing by drinking. Drone pilots will distance themselves from the act of killing with a video game-like technological interface. A trigger on a gun makes killing easier.
Anwar would distance himself from the act of killing by acting, in a way: he would talk about watching movies, being intoxicated with the experience of identifying with the main character, dancing. Swept up by whatever movie he just saw, he would dance his way out of the cinema, across the street, and kill happily. So for Anwar acting was always part of the act of killing.
So there are multiple meanings to the title. And as the film presents, the act of killing feeds a moral vacuum, a cultural vacuum, creating a downward spiral of corruption and evil that is inevitable. This is what happens when you kill, when you commit a crime and then justify it, and you get away with it, and you build a whole society on the basis of that justification of an atrocity. The film documents the act of killing community, the act of killing hope, the act of killing ideas, the act of killing our common humanity. So the film has all of these different nuances.
One scene really embodies that sense of a moral vacuum at the center of a society. Early in the film, watching the killers brag about their crimes, you could imagine that’s something they do in private, among people trusted to keep the secret. Then you see them appearing on an Indonesian chat show and being lauded for killing “Communists.” Still, today, they’re using that description and admiring the killers. That moment reflects the larger culture.
I think there are two definitions here. I started this project in collaboration with survivors, and they were being monitored because they had been officially designated as politically unclean. We were being stopped by the army and the police every time we tried to film. It was terrifying for all of us, especially the survivors.
Then when I started filming with the perpetrators — at the survivors’ request, and the human rights community’s request — I think the opposite was true. They were immediately boastful, and the state rolled out a red carpet for everything we did, including flying a government minister up from Jakarta to act in a re-enactment of an attack on the village, and also producing a talk show to hype the movie before it was even made.
As I found myself becoming close to this community of survivors, I felt as though I’d walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power. The talk show really reflects that; it embodies that. There’s this line that the talk show host says: “Let’s give Anwar and his friends a big round of applause, because they invented a new, more humane, more efficient system for killing Communists.”
Except I think it’s worth pointing out that the talk show, which was produced by regional state TV in North Sumatra, is as shocking for Indonesians as it is for foreign viewers. That’s important in that I was trusted by the survivors and the human rights community to make a film that would expose the nature of Indonesian present-day reality — not so much for foreign audiences, who I think they understandably assumed wouldn’t care about Indonesian political reality today — but particularly I was asked to make a film that would expose that reality to Indonesians themselves, rather like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes pointing and saying, “The emperor is naked!” Everybody knew it but was too afraid to say it, and maybe were so afraid for so long that they forgot they knew it.
But once it’s pointed out so emotionally, and by the perpetrators themselves, there’s no going back and pretending that this isn’t the case. So the talk show really is shocking for Indonesians, too. And to understand why, I think we can go back to this analogy of what if the Nazis had won. When Himmler was talking about the Final Solution to fellow SS officers, he said, “This is a page in our history that will never be written, and yes, we should also be proud of it.”
In Indonesia, there’s an official history that doesn’t talk about the slaughter. You can imagine that there would be an official history which didn’t talk about the Holocaust, which made no mention of it, and yet the aging SS officers who carried out the Final Solution would have gone back to their communities and been encouraged — you can imagine them being allowed to boast, encouraged to boast, and being the feared proxies of the state. Also, perhaps it was so that they could live with the crime they were encouraged to commit.
"Everybody knew it but was too afraid to say it, and maybe were so afraid for so long that they forgot they knew it."
So I see much is the same situation in Indonesia. You have a national official history that doesn’t talk about the 1965 killings, except in this kind of mysterious and heroic blank spot in Indonesian history. And then you have the killers all over the country boasting about what they did. I think because I was working with high ranking killers in North Sumatra — including political patrons with the government of North Sumatra and the publisher of the biggest newspaper in North Sumatra. Because we were shooting in studios used for regional soap operas, the state TV producers saw, “Wow, all of these prominent local citizens and leaders of North Sumatran society. Local and national heroes are making a film openly celebrating what they did. Perhaps we have been too careful, too circumspect in our discussions of 1965. Because we have the governor celebrating with Anwar in the studio, and we have paramilitary leaders, the publisher of the local newspaper talking about it in the studio. I guess we should be celebrating it, too.”
So they decided to produce that talk show. You could say that the production of The Act of Killing in some way distorted the regional discourse about 1965; the talk show is an artifact of that, and stands as a shocking allegory for the impunity that exists across Indonesia. So when Indonesians watch that scene, they are as shocked as you and I are, and they laugh cathartically. They’re horrified, but they laugh with joy and catharsis, seeing the true underlying logic of this regime so thoroughly exposed.
You set out to make a film that would have an effect, and it has really catalyzed a reaction in Indonesia, both from the press and from the populace. Why do you think it’s been so provocative?
Because it's the perpetrators themselves showing what they did, the reality is undeniable. It shows systematic corruption, built on the founding original sin of mass murder that continues to this day. It is pointing at major problems in contemporary Indonesian society that need to be addressed. Because it shows human beings who if they were really heroes, ought to be enjoying their old age and the fruits of their heroic victories. It shows them actually destroyed by what they’ve done.
Anwar is devastated by what he’s done. Not consciously so, but he’s destroyed by it. Likewise with Adi, the other killer in the film, and of course all of the paramilitary and political leaders, these hollow shells of human beings.
"You have the killers all over the country boasting about what they did."
It presents the younger Indonesians who are assuming positions of leadership with a pretty stark choice: do they want to grow old like the perpetrators, or do they want to take a stand and address the reality which is so undeniably and forcefully presented by the film? I think the undeniable exposé of the moral and cultural vacuum that’s inevitable when you build your normality on the basis of terror and lies is what’s having such an effect in Indonesia.
A younger generation is not invested in these events. They haven’t spent their whole careers lying about it, and they didn’t participate in it. Rather like the ‘68 generation in Germany, they’re seeing the film and saying, “We’ve been lied to by our parents, our teachers, the government.” And the teachers, perhaps, have been lied to. They recognize the corruption and impunity exposed by the film, and they realize that they have to address these issues.
So partly in response to the film, Tempo, Indonesia’s largest newsmagazine, came out with a special double edition containing 75 pages of boastful testimony from perpetrators all over the country.
They did that because they wanted to break the silence, and they recognized they needed to marshal fresh evidence and present The Act of Killing as essentially a repeatable experiment by showing there are men like Anwar all over the country, men who will boast about what they’ve done; that Anwar was one of 10,000 perpetrators. That opened the way for in-depth reports about the genocide. And to some extent about the corruption, the impunity that derives from the genocide and continues today, and the ongoing human rights abuses that followed the genocide.
The film has been screened widely: as of April, we’d had 500 screenings in 95 cities and that continues to grow. We are committed to making the film a free download and free to stream for anybody in Indonesia, because we want everybody in Indonesia to see this film.
The Act of Killing is currently playing in New York City; it opens in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., on Friday, with more cities to follow. Interview transcribed by Phil Oakley.