“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.”