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.
“The movie sets were a space where people’s humanity came out,” Oppenheimer says. “While making this movie, [executioner] Herman Koto fell in love with acting and developed a professional actor’s loyalty to the emotional and moral truth of whatever scene he’s playing. Over the course of the five years we spent shooting The Act of Killing, Herman came to realize that he’s a tool of a corrupt and violent paramilitary movement. He became more and more angry at the organization and turned into this force of truth in the film. Herman plays an important role in the process of constantly bringing Anwar back to confront his pain. Anwar would get cold feet, and Herman would gently lead him back in. You see him doing just that in the horror film, where he’s eating Anwar’s organs, or the scene near the end where he’s killing Anwar, and Anwar can’t say his lines. Herman is a big supporter of the finished film. He really loves it.”
The Act of Killing has become a big hit in Indonesia, sparking fierce public debate and finally giving the media a forum to report on the genocide honestly, without fear of persecution. But the movie has also enraged the right-wing Pancalisa Youth paramilitary group, which was spawned during the massacres and whose members understandably hate the film for stripping them of their heroic airs.
“It is no longer safe for me to be in Indonesia,” Oppenheimer says. “I could get into the country, but I don’t think I would get out. The film has come to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing out that the king is naked. Everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it. My Indonesian collaborators and friends who worked alongside me and made this very dark journey bearable, even wonderful, can’t come with me to any festival screenings, because it would compromise their safety. We couldn’t even list their names in the end credits: It’s still too dangerous for the people who helped make this movie to put their names on it. ”
Oppenheimer amassed 1,200 hours of film in total, making it the world’s largest audio-visual archive of the 1965 genocide. Some of that material will be used in his next film, focusing on a family of survivors. Oppenheimer is also making a lot of the footage available to scholars and historians.
But the director emphasizes that despite the film’s Indonesian focus, the issues explored in The Art of Killing transcend borders.
“This is a movie about how we lie to ourselves so we can justify our actions and live with our most painful truths,” he says. “We need to remember this isn’t just a case study of a culture on the other side of the world. Everything we buy today as consumers is produced in countries like Indonesia, places where there is mass political violence and the oppressors have built regimes of fear, be it a sweatshop in Bangladesh, an electronic factory in China or a Nike factory in Indonesia. Workers in electronic factories in Taiwan that supply parts for Apple have committed suicide due to their working conditions. In that sense, The Act of Killing is not a distant reality: It’s the underbelly of our reality. In the film, the vice-president of Indonesia says he needs his gangsters to beat people up so he can get things done. He could be easily speaking for all us. The human cost of the products we buy is incorporated in the price tag.”