Joshua Oppenheimer on 'The Act of Killing'

The director talks to Al Jazeera about his chilling documentary on death squad leaders in Indonesia

Former death squad members Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in full make-up as they prepare for one of the re-enactment sequences in the documentary "The Act of Killing," about mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66.
Drafthouse Films

“The Act of Killing” is a powerful and often horrifying inquiry into mass killings in Indonesia. Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed former leaders of the death squads that executed hundreds of thousands of alleged communists between 1965 and 1966. Many of the perpetrators of these mass murders are in positions of influence today, and their political heirs form the backbone of the Indonesian establishment. None have been prosecuted for their crimes.

This extraordinary film features elaborate re-enactments of the massacres, as staged and acted by the killers themselves. Oppenheimer’s central subject is the death squad leader Anwar Congo, who recounts killing as many as 1,000 men, garroting his victims with wire. One of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, Anwar is celebrated as a national hero by many in Indonesia.

Earlier this month the film’s production company, Drafthouse Films, announced that “The Act of Killing” would be made available as a free digital download in Indonesia starting Sept. 30, the anniversary of the start of the 1965-66 genocide.

Anwar Congo is an extraordinary figure, in part because he seems like a man who is trying to confirm his guilt in a society that keeps insisting on his innocence. How did you come to him, and was he typical of the other perpetrators you interviewed?

He was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. I started this project in collaboration with a community of survivors, and every time we got together the military would stop the filming. They would basically not allow the survivors to speak. But the survivors would send me to film their neighbors in the plantation village where they were living — neighbors who they knew had been involved in the killings — in the hopes that I would be able to find out how their loved ones had died.

I would go and meet these people, and I would introduce myself as just the foreigner living in the village, hoping they would be curious and invite me in, and they were. I would try very gently to ask about the past, very innocuous questions like “What did you do for a living?” And I was immediately assailed by these answers which were boastful, grotesque, horrific stories of killing, often delivered in front of their grandchildren, their children, their wives.

The contrast between the survivors, who were bullied into silence, and the perpetrators, who were boasting about what they had done, shook me. I felt as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power. And I knew from that point that this would demand of me however much of my life it would take. 

The first time I meet Anwar, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people.

So I filmed perpetrator after perpetrator after perpetrator. I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across the region. They offered to take me to places where they had killed within minutes of meeting me. I would accept these invitations, and as soon as we could arrange such a trip we would go. And they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they had killed, complain that they hadn’t thought to bring weapons along as props, or friends along to play victims.

That scene in the beginning of the film, when Anwar shows how he killed with wire — that was the very first time I filmed him. Two things were more extreme in Anwar than in the others. One was the boasting. The first time I meet him, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people. Other perpetrators had approached that degree of grotesque absurdity, but this was one step beyond.

But more importantly, and I think directly related to the stridency of his boasting, was the sense that his pain was close to the surface. I intuited then that his boasting is a desperate attempt to deny what he knows — namely, that he has done something terrible — and convince himself, and everybody around him, that it was right. That is, the boasting turns out to be a sign not of pride, but the opposite. And it is defensive.

Congo and Zulkadry with a member of the paramilitary organization, Pancasila Youth.
Drafthouse Films

It seems clear that Anwar is suffering from some form of PTSD. And it’s interesting that all the perpetrators took you to the site of these brutal killings. Do you think there’s something about re-enactment that allows people to access an old trauma, something that’s not been fully processed? And were you conscious of that when you started using it in your film?

The survivors and the human rights community in Indonesia at the beginning of this journey said, “We need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and exposes for Indonesians what they already know” — both this traumatic history, but above all the way this traumatic history underpins a regime of fear and corruption in the present. In that sense, I used re-enactment in the film because it was a way of exposing impunity. Every time a perpetrator would take me to the place where he had killed and cavalierly show me how he had done it, it was material for exposing the nature of this regime.

But I think what motivates the perpetrators to re-enact is also an attempt, paradoxically, to deal with their pain. The way I can explain this seeming paradox — how can they be trying on the one hand to celebrate what they’ve done, and on the other hand be trying to deal with their pain — is this: You cannot go to the place where you killed and with a smile show how you did it if you are not somehow insisting that it was great, or right, or worthy. In that sense each re-enactment is a denial of the moral meaning of what they did. So I think they’re unconsciously drawn to the trauma. But at the same time, once they’re there, rather than have the courage to say, “This is wrong, look what we did,” and be utterly devastated by that — rather than that, they celebrate, justify and boast, in order to reassure themselves that what they did was right, and to protect themselves from the traumatic force of the very memories they are drawn to explore.

By the end of the film, when Anwar returns to the site where he’s committed these murders, he has a very different reaction from the first time you filmed him at the site. Instead of dancing, he’s doubled over in pain. On some level, the film has allowed him to confront what he has done.

It’s interesting to look at the end of the film. We would never shoot more than one re-enactment at a time or plan more than one fiction scene at a time. Anwar would plan it, we would shoot it and he would watch it, and in reaction to that he would propose the next scene. So the method is like a man painting his own portrait — he paints, he steps back, he paints a little more.

So in this one re-enactment, Anwar plays the victim being strangled, and he feels traumatized by it. Then he proposes this scene at the waterfall — where he imagines the victims waiting to give him a medal to thank him for sending them to heaven. And of course that scene is a direct response to the previous scene, an attempt to wash the pain away.

That scene at the waterfall elicits weeping from Indonesian viewers, but laughter at the same time — because there is for Indonesian viewers the cathartic joy of seeing the whole regime unmasked. The scene is almost a punch line for the entire regime: This is a society that was founded on mass murder, where the perpetrators are in power, where the victims should be thanking them for sending them to heaven. So you can see this tension between my project, which is to expose a regime of impunity, and Anwar’s project, which is to somehow deal with his pain.

And in that sense, we never really were friends. We care about each other a lot; I spoke to him today. But both of us were trying to work out much bigger projects than the relationship. He’s trying to deal with decades of pain, from killing hundreds and hundreds of people; I’m trying to expose a regime on behalf of survivors and the human rights community. Maybe that tension animates the whole film — the tension between empathy for Anwar as he struggles with his past and repulsion of seeing what this whole regime is about.

Was it his idea to act the role of the victim?

It was his idea; it was something he was doing from the very beginning. At the outset of the film, he has a length of wire around his neck showing me how he killed. He says, “Now I must show you how the victim died.”

The memory of watching victim after victim being strangled to death may be more traumatic than anything else for him. And yet he’s drawn to it. Perhaps by re-enacting it he tames it, makes it safe — builds up a kind of protective scar tissue around the wound. Maybe the film gave him a space to feel guilty.

Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to 'construct' our world.

You use movies and the language of fiction in the context of a documentary. What is the film saying about the relationship between fiction and truth?

The film is about how we create our world through storytelling. We are constantly — in order to cope with painful realities — shuffling through third-rate, half-remembered fantasies taken from movies, from TV, from people we admire. We do this individually, we do it collectively — we tell stories to escape our most painful truths.

Cinema is of course the great storytelling medium of modernity. And it just so happened that these particular killers had this love of American movies; they were [in fact originally] recruited from the ranks of movie theater gangsters. So, organically, film genre became the medium for exploring and expressing its own implication in the performance and remembrance of violence. I don’t think the film is saying that violent movies cause violent behavior. The example Anwar gives of a movie that directly participated in the killings is an Elvis Presley musical. He says that he walked out of the cinema and danced across the street and killed happily. Well, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. The issue, rather, is storytelling as a means of escape and denial.

It feels also that the film is saying that the structure of fiction allows us to access a truth that is perhaps not as easy to get to in a factual way.

Yes, that too. Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to “construct” our world. It’s haunted by the unimaginable and the unspeakable. It’s like Anwar is trying to chase his shadow through the making of the fiction. 

Congo enacts an elaborate sequence before a waterfall, in which the victims of the genocide present him with a medal and thank him for sending them to heaven.
Drafthouse Films

What is the life of the film in Indonesia? I know you’ve been doing private screenings. Will you be submitting the film to the censorship board?

As of April, there had been 500 screenings in 95 cities, averaging in size of about 200 people. So although underground, a lot of them are big — some of them have been 700 people.

The official response to the film being as hostile as it has been — not the public response, the public response has been wonderful — but with the government giving no indication of even considering the National Human Rights Commission’s demands for a presidential apology or truth commission, and with nasty remarks about the film from leading high-ranking army generals, we don’t want to take the risk of submitting it to the censorship board. Because if we do, and they ban it, then it’s a crime to screen the film at all. That becomes an excuse in Indonesia for the army or paramilitary groups to physically attack screenings. We don’t want that to happen.

Do you think a truth and reconciliation process is possible in Indonesia?

I think it is. I’m so impressed by the younger generation of Indonesians and their desire to articulate their country’s past, and then to articulate what they already know but have been too afraid to articulate about their country’s present — about the use of gangsters, the corruption, and the chilling effect of fear on Indonesian democracy. The hunger for Indonesians to talk about these problems is really encouraging.

Can you go back to Indonesia?

I think I could get in, but I’m not sure I could get out again. Today Anwar, who misses me, said maybe we could meet in Kuala Lumpur.

Does the film actually contain any information that was not already known in Indonesia, or was it the framing of it that made it so shocking for Indonesian audiences?

I think it’s the framing of it. Indonesians might not have known the details of the killings — they know that something awful happened and that they don’t talk about it. But I think fundamentally, what’s really powerful about the film is what it shows about Indonesia’s present, and about our common humanity when we build our present-day reality on terror and on lies. 


This interview has been condensed and edited.

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