‘The Act Of Killing’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer On Indonesian Mass Killings And The Power Of Movies

CREDIT: Drafthouse Films

The Act Of Killing, released today on DVD in the United States, is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. And given that I tend to avoid torture-based horror movies, I imagine it will hold that place in my movie pantheon for a very long time. Director Joshua Oppenheimer, who’d previously made a movie about plantation workers in Indonesia who were trying to form a union, spent eight years in the country to produce a film about the 1965 mass killings of Communists–and members of many other groups who were accused of being Communists, including Chinese immigrants and intellectuals–that were part of the coup against the country’s first president, Sukarno. Rather than making a historical film, and after the Indonesian Army blocked him from filming interviews with survivors of the killings, Oppenheimer took a different route.

He began interviewing the perpetrators of the killings. And after he noticed that the men he was interviewing often spontaneously reenacted their murders, Oppenheimer, using the same tactics that shaped his earlier film, The Globalisation Tapes, worked with two of them, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, to make elaborate filmed recreations of sequences of torture and killings, often in the style of American movies, including gangster films and Westerns. The result is a profoundly unsettling reflection not just on a little-known mass murder that was actively abetted by the American government, and not just on the role that the perpetrators of those killings still occupy in Indonesian civil society, but on the power of movies to shape our identities, and to force us to confront terrible truths.

I spoke to Oppenheimer while he was in Alaska, and as we talked about the diversity of the state’s inhabitants and the experiences of immigrant workers there, he began to tell me about his experiences making The Globalisation Tapes, which lead him to the project that became The Act Of Killing. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I first went to Indonesia to make a movie in 2001 and 2000 to make a movie in collaboration with a group of plantation workers about their efforts to form a union…They desperately wanted a union but they were afraid to organize one because their parents had been in a strong plantation workers union until 1965 when they were killed for it…They were afraid this could happen again. There was this sense of pervasive control. If I would bicycle through the plantation or walk through plantation, someone would walk up to me and ask “What you are doing here”….They said come back as quickly as you can and make a movie about why we are afraid.

[When he did] The army found out that we were doing this and the survivors were no longer permitted to participate in the film. When we would try to film the movie, the army would come and stop us…The survivors said before you give up and leave, try to film the perpetrators, maybe they’ll tell you how our relatives were killed…We would approach these aging death squad leaders cautiously…To our horror and astonishment, they all opened up immediately with boastful accounts of mass killing, told sometime with a smile on their face, sometimes in front of their wives, or children, or even their grandchildren…Everyone I filmed was boastful, and most of them would invite me to places where they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed, and lament that they hadn’t brought friends along to use as victims and weapons to use as props…Increasingly I wanted to know is why are they boasting? For who are they boasting?…Anwar [Congo] was more boastful in some ways than anyone else I filmed and yet his pain was right there on the surface.

This is obviously a movie about the movies. Anwar and Herman talk about how they used to scalp movie tickets, and they talk repeatedly about the banning of American movies, which was supposed to be a Communist cause. While filming one scene, Anwar, in character, says “We want to feel like people in the movies,” and he mentions actors like John Wayne. Did you talk with them at any point about how movies influenced their behavior? Did making the film influence your thinking about the impact of what’s touted as one of America’s most significant exports?

The army was recruiting its killers form the ranks of gangsters and criminals who had a proven capacity for violent. They controlled the entertainment industry, prostitution, gambling, drugs. They were running a black market out of movie theaters…using movie theaters as a base of operations for controlling turf. They had this love of Hollywood movies. There was a boycott of Hollywood movies, a pretty broad-based boycott, in 1965, from the center, even the right, to the left. The head of the [American Motion Picture Association] in Indonesia, Bill Palmer, had been exposed as a CIA agent who was part of a plot to kill the beloved founding father of Indonesia, Sukarno. American movies, none the less, were the most popular at the box office. [As a result, the movie theater gangsters lost business because of the boycott.] They were a good force of recruits.

Now, Anwar said many times, described many times to me, how he was inspired, gathered methods of killing from watching Hollywood movies. But I had to hear that five, six, maybe ten times before it sunk in that that was what he was saying. [That’s not to say that Hollywood movies cause violence.] I think that’s too simple by far. I filmed 30, 35 perpetrators in the countryside who were killing quite easily without watching movies. They were distancing themselves from the inherently traumatic act of killing by drinking alcohol…Interestingly, the most recent example Anwar gives of movies influencing his behavior was an Elvis Presley movie, he talked about dancing out of the cinema and killing happily, drunk not on alcohol but by the cinematic identification with Elvis. This is a film about the effects of denial. About the corrupting effects of denial, about what happens when we build a normality on the basis of violence…I think that Anwar, somehow the real issue then is about escapism and denial and fantasy and how we use stories to escape from our most bitter and painful truths, how we lie to ourselves to justify our actions. Cinema is the great storytelling medium of modernity, so cinema is implicated in that.

Anwar and Adi Zulkadry talk a great deal about the anti-communist propaganda film children used to be shown in schools. I was curious–what were the origins of that film? How did it become part of the school curriculum? When was it removed from the curriculum?

Yeah, the film introduced, was made in 1982, but maybe it started being shown in ’83. I’d have to check. It was the highest-budget Indonesian film ever made. It was 4 and a half hours long. Every schoolchild from kindergardten through university had to watch it every year and write a report about it, or talk about it if it they were too young to write…People in my crew talk about how traumatic it was…They started seeing it when they were very young, and it left a terrifying impression, so they were always afraid of it.

Given how boring it is and how repetitive it is, it was made to have that effect, it was made to indoctrinate a younger generation of indoensians who were still too young to remember the genocide, so they would accept the military dictatorship…In 1999, a year after Suharto fell, Shuarto resigned…[his successor Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie] also proposed to apologize to the victims and to set up a truth and reconciliation commission. He was removed as a result of that in 1999 and was replaced, because the military found that unacceptable.

The film is no longer shown, but the school curriculum is exactly as it was when the film is being shown. If you see my new film, which will come out later this year, The Look Of Violence, it’s in many ways the film I set out to make. There’s an amazing scene of the nephew of someone who was killed, and the grandson in this family that was labeled as Communist simply because they were part of a farmer’s collective. And you see the teacher demonstrating the kind of grotesque kind of slashing of the face with razors you see in the movie. The story is still taught in school even though the film’s no longer shown. You could say the official history is 100 percent still intact in terms of the school curriculum…There will be no rewreiting of the nation’s school curriculum until the government stops insisting that genocide was heroic.

Are the killings represented in domestic Indonesian films at all today? If so, is there a dominant perspective about them? Does Pancaslia Youth have any influence on Indonesian domestic film production, along with their influence in other sectors of the economy?

First of all, even in this propaganda film, it doens’t show the killing of the Communists. It shows atrocities that are fictional, that never happened, that are either attributed to Communists or what the Communists would have done if they had not been killed. it’s a kind of slight of hand that Goebbels would have admired. There may be, as there is in Bollywood, gangster control, of some filmmaking. But there are committed Indonesian filmmmakers who are committed supporters of The Act Of Killing.

Can you tell me a bit more about your anonymous co-director? Why is he or she anonymous? What was his or her role in the film?

There are something like 60 people who are credited as anonymous. My assistant director, my production manager, but above all, my main creative sounding board. It’s thanks to that dialogue that the film has been seen as 100 percent authentic as Indonesian and welcomed, and me seen as an Indonesian filmmaker, even though I’m not Indonesian. That’s critical to the impact the film is making in Indonesia. As we were finishing the film, it was clear to me that that individual in particular should be credited as my co-director. He’s someone who gave 8 years of his life, risking his safety, knowing that unless there’s major political change in Indonesia, he would not be able to put his name on the film and get credit for a decade’s work. The saddest part of presenting this film for me has been knowing that he can’t travel with me…He’s eloquent, passionate, interesting, and wonderful. Making this film was a very dark journey. it’s a very painful journey. The scene wheer Anwar’s torturing the teddy bear, I located it in my mind as a source of months of nightmares for me. And consequently, if I got through the production, it was very much thanks to my wonderful crew’s support and love and laughter.

In filming the sequences, did you have any sense that the reenactments were more brutal than the actual crimes, in response to the presence of the cameras? The sequence where the Pancasila Youth members are burning the village, there was obvious direction.

There’s two interesting things I’d say about that. We were in touch with survivors of the massacres they dramatized…We showed that footage back to the genuine survivors of the massacre. They, invariably would say this is nothing compared to what it was like.

I think there’s something interesting in your question, about how the camera might elicit spectacle, and the relationship between spectacle and brutality and terror. The violence that they reenact for the camera has the quality of spectacle, and in that sense it may be more spectular than the original violence. But that may not make it more brutal. I think the actual killing may or may not have been oriented towards spectatorship. it may have been. In the sense that rape and gang rape is particularly common in violent conflict because it’s a performance of one’s rape for one’s fellow perpetrators. So there may have been a performative quality to the violence at the time of the filling. Anwar certainly used performance after waltzing out of the cinema and killing happily. He may have used performance and the surrendering himself to a delicious role to minimize the horror that was happening at the time. There could have been real friends wathcing him when he killed. Whether the original spectacle was there…I am certain the original kiling had to be unimaginably more brutal than the reenactment.

In the editing process, one of the main strategies, and it wasn’t something we planned on, but it was inevitable, there was no alternative, was to hold back the violence. What you see in the film is the tip of the iceberg. Again and again, he would recount what happens to a human being when he’s being garotted with wire. I have it again and again and again in my material and we couldn’t use it because it was too awful.

At the end of the film, Anwar tells us “Why did I have to kill them? I had to kill. My conscience told me they had to be killed.” You’ve got some context in the film so we understand the relationships between the government and gangsters more broadly, and the role of Pancasila Youth today, but did you deliberately decide to exclude an explanation of how Anwar moved from scalping tickets to killing Communists?

It probably matters. Yes and no. Yes and no. I think the film gives a fairly honest view. Most viewers who see the film come away thnking these men were greedy and they were rewarded with money and maybe power and that’s why they did it. If you cut past all the lies that they’ve forced on society and clung to themselves so they can support their actions, why did Suharto take power? For power and for money. And why did the gangsters agree? Not because they were ideologically committed anti-Communists. The people they were killing were’t Communists and they knew that, because they knew some of the people they were killing. Everybody who I filmed who was involved in the killings killed for power and money and I think that’s true all the way up the chain of command. Anwar and his friends were killing as hit-men before, not on this scale. In that sense, if you ask someone why they killed, they will tell you, invariably, the excuse they’ve clung to. The trick is to get beyond that.

What about the role of support from foreign governments? Should American audiences feel doubly complicit about the role of our entertainment and our government?

I think fundamentally, I had to make a decision really on whether this was a film about the past or the present. And The Act Of Killing is a film about the present. And it’s a film about the abuse of historical narrative in the present. It’s a film about the role of an unresolved traumatic past of keeping people terrorized in the present and enabling all sorts of corruption and further evil, [like] the extortion in the marketplaces. It’s a film about the life of an unresolved traumatic past in the present. But it’s not a film about that past.

Early on, when the survivors said come back and make a film about why we’re all afraid, early on when they said that, it’s clear what they said was make a film about the contemporary condition of impunity. To make that understandable, we have to show the kind of horror that took place in a present tense manifestation…So the reenactments and the boasting of the perpetrators is one way of doing this…The fact that they can speak about this is symptomatic of why everyone is still afraid, and it serves to keep people afraid.

To make a film that goes into the details of American support, and it’s a lead I followed for some distance, would necessitate for arguing how important that support was. The U.S. provided lists of thousands of names, intellectuals, journalists, trade unionists, writers, who they wanted the I government to go after and kill…I think the real function of the American death lists was to send a strong signal to the Army to go after everybody, kill everybody, we want everybody dead. The US was providing some weapons, the us was providing some money, the us was providing radios so the army could coordinate this killing campaign across the vast archipelago…

That would be a different film. It’s research that I think people are undertaking. it’s research suddenly more people are interested in because of The Act Of Killing…But I don’t know that as a film, even if it were exceptionally well-made, anyone would care about it. We have trouble getting people to care about what happened in Syria, let alone a Cold wWar military coup the U.S. was implicated in that happened 60 years ago.