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Q&A with Joshua Oppenheimer: Grappling with “The Act of Killing”

Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer discusses his powerful film “The Act of Killing” with A&E.

Anwar Congo, an active member of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila in Indonesia, didn’t hesitate to appear in the Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing.” Widely favored to win Best Documentary Feature, it lost to “20 Feet from Stardom” over the weekend.  

In the film, Congo spoke with director Joshua Oppenheimer about murdering many people in the 1960s.

The regime killed millions of so-called communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965 and 1966, and it’s still active today. Citizens of Indonesia deal with the consequences daily, and Oppenheimer wanted to illuminate this culture of fear and violence.

He decided to interview perpetrators, asking them to share their stories in an unusual way. Oppenheimer invited them to re-enact their crimes on film — he said that they were allowed to simulate their memories in whichever form they pleased. Each of the results portray a different genre of film, including a musical. They’re horrifying and illuminating, diving deep inside the fantasy of terror and what, exactly, the act of killing means to these people.

A&E spoke with Oppenheimer about his work and its effects.


Tell me about how you began this project on Indonesia.

I started working on these Indonesian killings eight years ago. I was trying to make a film with survivors about why they are still afraid today, about what it’s like to live with the perpetrators in power all around them. This was in early 2003.

The army is positioned in every village, though, and very quickly they found out about what we were doing, and they told the survivors that they couldn’t be in the film.

They threatened them with arrest. But one of them said to me, “Before you give up, before you quit and go home, try to film the perpetrators. They’ll tell you how they killed our relatives.”

I did.

To my horror, every single one of them was immediately open about the grisly details of the killings, and they would do this with a smile on their face and in front of their families, even their small grandchildren. I had this feeling I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust to find the Nazis still in power.

Astonished, we all went to Jakarta to show this to the Human Rights community. Everybody who saw it implored me to continue filming the perpetrators because they said that any Indonesian or person in the world who saw the footage would be forced to acknowledge, finally, the rotten heart of the regime the killers had built.

From that point on, I felt entrusted by the survivors to continue and do the work they couldn’t do themselves. For two years, I filmed every perpetrator I could find.

Anwar Congo was the 41st perpetrator I filmed near the end of 2005. I spent five years filming Anwar, and we spent about 1,200 hours of material taping the paramilitary and political officials around him.

Congo is an extremely compelling figure. One of the most interesting things about this film is that we question the parts of Congo that may be alive in us. Whether or not we have empathy for him is fascinating, I think.

I think that our empathy for Anwar grows in pace with Anwar’s ability to empathize with others, because Anwar begins to recognize the horror of what he’s done.

In some ways, Anwar knows from the beginning. The boastful victory to which he is clinging is somehow a lie. “The Act of Killing” is really a film about a man who does not believe his own words and is, in essence, living a lie.

I lingered on him because the very first day I filmed him, you could see that he had pain. That pain was right there on the surface, and it was connected to his boasting. The very first day I met Anwar, he took me to the roof, showed me how he killed all these people and then danced the cha-cha-cha.

It’s one of the most chilling scenes in the film.

It’s chilling because it’s obviously this absurd, surreal metaphor for impunity.

How could this man be dancing where he killed all these people? Because he’s never been forced to admit what he’s done is wrong. The reason he’s dancing, though, he says, is because he’s been drinking and taking drugs and going out to forget what he’s done.

In dancing, he’s denying — rather desperately, I think — the moral meaning of what he’s done. But yet, he’s acknowledging it because he has to run away from the horror of it all. He knows what he’s done is wrong. I glimpsed with Anwar that his morality as a human being senses what he’s done is disturbing. He’s traumatized. It’s an element in his boasting. The boasting and the trauma are two sides of the same coin, somehow.

In becoming close to him, it became difficult for me in the same way that it’s difficult for viewers. As you become close to someone, you become vulnerable to them [and] you open yourself to them, and I think that’s why this film is emotionally impactful.

Viewers approach Anwar through my closeness to Anwar, and I think they empathize with him through my empathy.

People sometimes tell me that they hear the film is graphically violent and the survivors play themselves in the re-enactments of the atrocities, and neither of those things are true, with the exception of Anwar’s neighbor in that special case.

I remember reading about you coming home to Copenhagen after filming and having trouble dealing with this feeling of responsibility for this violent society and oppression around the world.

As viewers all over the world find the courage to approach a man like Anwar through my closeness with him, they come to realize that the whole moral paradigm, the whole lie that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, collapses because of the fact that we’re all perpetrators in some fashion.

 That opens the audience to the question of how we are complicit. This is something I’ve been able to discuss in the last few weeks because the film is nominated for an Academy Award. We were able to present it on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and discuss with lawmakers about how we can’t have an ethical relationship with countries like Indonesia going forward, and we certainly can’t point fingers at things like impunity in Indonesia without being hypocrites until we acknowledge our own roles in these crimes. We enthusiastically supported the genocide and this regime that came to power with military aid.

In this sense, we have to take collective responsibility for our role in this. When I was shooting the film, my mother would ask me why I didn’t come back home and stay in a place where these atrocities weren’t surrounding me.

I felt like these things are all around us everywhere. There’s no home to go back to. All of the foods that we buy, all of the clothes that we buy, all of the electronics that we buy, come from places like Indonesia and the act of killing …

[Political violence has] kept them too afraid to organize.

When I first started this journey, I began with plantation workers that were working under a Belgian company. They were forced to spray a weed killer with no protective clothing. This was getting into their lungs and dissolving their livers — women were dying in their 40s. When they complained about it, the Belgian company hired people to physically attack them. This is the underbelly of our reality, and we are all the unwitting hosts of Anwar’s actions.

So where does that leave you as a filmmaker?

I think that the film has already helped begin a transformation in Indonesia. I think it’s helping people to talk about the moral catastrophe of the genocide for the first time without fear, and to link it to the capacities of the present-day regime. I have a responsibility to talk about these issues whenever I can. The perpetrators have escaped justice, but they have not escaped punishment.


What: Film screening: “The Act of Killing”
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church St. SE, Minneapolis
Cost: Free


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