There are moments in The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about the Indonesian death squad leaders who presided over the government-backed executions of more than a million people in 1965, when you wonder if the filmmaker ever felt his life was in danger.
“Yes, there were moments when we were scared, especially whenever the [killers] had second thoughts about the film,” Oppenheimer says. “When I showed [executioner] Anwar Congo the scene on the roof where he reenacts how he killed people with fishing wire, I was afraid he was going to say ‘I don’t want to do this. This makes me look bad.’ and call the paramilitary on us. During certain days of filming, I sent my Indonesian production manager to the airport with cash, ready to buy tickets for me and the entire crew in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. He would wait there until I sent him a text saying everything was OK.”
Oppenheimer originally intended to make a movie about the survivors of the massacre — the children of the intellectuals, farmers and ethnic Chinese who were branded communists, rounded up en masse and slaughtered after the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. In 2005, he had already spent three years filming interviews with the survivors and living among them. But the same problem kept recurring: The army prohibited the survivors to go on the record with their experiences.
Instead, Oppenheimer decided to train his camera on the executioners, who today are treated as celebrities by the Indonesian media and championed as patriots by the government. For the next two years, the filmmaker interviewed 40 of the killers, who were happy to boast about their crimes and bask in the attention.
“I wasn’t trying to find the right ‘character’ for a movie during that time,” Oppenheimer says. “I simply wanted to find out exactly what had happened and expose the impunity these men had enjoyed. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I met, and he quickly became the focus of the movie. Some people have told me they think these men are psychopaths. But a psychopath is someone who doesn’t feel remorse or empathy or compassion for other human beings. Anwar’s problem is that he’s not a psychopath. That’s why life is so hard for him today, and that’s what he’s still struggling with. [Executioner] Adi Zulkadry is probably the closest to a psychopath than anyone else in the film. But even he is constantly rationalizing away what he did. I believe him when he says he’s able to sleep at night without nightmares and that he was allowed to do what he did without punishment. But he wouldn’t be saying those things if he didn’t know on some level that his actions were wrong.”
Before they were drafted by the government to carry out mass murders, Congo and his cohorts were “movie gangsters,” street-level thugs who would buy all the tickets of the latest Hollywood import in advance, then scalp them for profit to people when they arrived at the sold-out cinema. Their passion for Elvis Presley musicals and crime dramas from the era gave Oppenheimer the idea to have the men recreate the killings via short films — a musical, a horror picture, a gangster flick — in which they could relive their crimes from the point of view of their victims.