"The Act of Killing" director Joshua Oppenheimer talks about uncovering Indonesian genocide

I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. The Act of Killing is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” - German filmmaker Werner Herzog

I began seeing this blurb on director Joshua Oppenheimer’s controversial new documentary The Act of Killing when the film premiered at the 2012 Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals last September. This same quote popped up again in the latest Walker Art Center cinema brochure earlier this month, and it's quite a statement from a filmmaker who has made some important documentaries himself over his 45+ years in filmmaking.

Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Academy-Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War) both saw early footage of Oppenheimer’s film and signed on to be executive producers in order to help this film be seen. This inventive and provocative documentary is about Indonesia’s genocide in 1965, wherein Indonesian President Sukarno’s government was overthrown by the military. Anyone who opposed the military dictatorship could be accused of being a “communist” and, therefore, executed by death squads. Many of these death squad officials were previously small-time gangsters and some are considered “heroes” in Indonesia. In less than a year, there were over one million “communists” who were murdered by these death squads.

This Indonesian genocide is little-known fact in America, but it is an important part of Indonesia’s history. Oppenheimer, along with co-directors Christine Cynn and another director using the name “Anonymous,” tracked down certain members of these death squads, including paramilitary leader Anwar Congo. Anwar goes into great and horrifying detail—describing many of his killings to the camera and in some cases, re-enacting some the killings on screen—with another former gangster turned executioner, Herman Koto, the film uses cinema styles of westerns, musicals, and film noir to portrayal many of these killings for the viewer.

Oppenheimer will be in the Twin Cities for four days this week with the area premiere of The Act of Killing at the Walker Art Center. After a screening of the theatrical cut and the director's cut at the Walker, the film then opens at the Lagoon Cinema on Friday, August 2; Oppenheimer will be on hand for the two evening screenings that day and then finally, will head back to the Walker Cinema on Saturday, August 3, for a master class starting at noon. There, Oppenheimer will discuss the process of directing a documentary and talk further in length about his film. (Click for details on the Walker and Lagoon screenings.)

I spoke with Oppenheimer by phone last week, as he was preparing for the Los Angeles premiere of the film, with Herzog in attendance at the Nuart Theater. He was not shy about discussing his much-ballyhooed film. We discussed the differences between the two versions of the film, how Herzog and Morris became attached to the film, the impact of the film in Indonesia, and whether his two “lead actors” Anwar and Herman have seen the film.

How did you become interested in documenting this part of Indonesian history?

I first headed to Indonesia to make a documentary about a community of plantation workers who were struggling to organize a union. They desperately needed a union because the women workers were spraying a herbicide that were dissolving their litter and killing them in their 40s and they were afraid to organize one because their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965. They had been accused of being communist sympathizes for being in a union and they were put into concentration camps by the Army and then dispatched by the Army to be killed by local death squads.

My collaborator, Christine Cynn, [and I] were making this film in 2001-02 called The Globilisation Tapes, and while we were filming that, we were asked by a neighbor in this plantation village, to help to see if this is how her relatives had died this way. So we went and introduced ourselves cautiously to this man, [thinking] perhaps he would be wondering who these foreigners living in this remote plantation community might be, and he invited us in and offered us tea. When we asked what he did for a living, he immediately launched into these horrific stories of killing “communists,” saying he had been promoted from being the security guard of the plantation into the manager of the plantation by killing 200 communists. When asked what he meant, he said he "eliminated the union.”

I felt at that point as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. I thought that this was both horrific and utterly ordinary, and extremely important. I say it's extremely important in the sense that offers this opportunity to understand what happened to common humanity when we will build our reality of terror and lies. It's ordinary in the sense because I was their filming people who were there harvesting oil pond—which is in our margarine, palm oil, skin care and shampoo—and I realized everything we buy is produced in places where there has been mass violence or the perpetrators have won and where in their victory they have built in a fear to keep the workers who make everything so oppressed that they are unable to get the human cost of what we buy incorporated in the price tag that we pay.

Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place like Indonesia and I realized, this is the dark underbelly of our reality and it needs to be explored and exposed—not in the sense that it shows us something new that we didn’t know, but it shows us actually that we all know when we buy a t-shirt, it's made in a sweatshop, somewhere. Just as Anwar knows, what he did is wrong; the dark message of the film is that everybody already knows everything and the function of art is somehow not to tell us a new story that we haven’t heard before, but to address the painful aspects of reality that we are normally to afraid to acknowledge.

You spent close to 10 years making this film; what did your friends, family, and colleagues think about you and Christine making this film?

Christine worked on big parts of the film, but this was not all that she was doing for 10 years. The most interesting part of the question is there was an “Anonymous” crew (an Indonesian team) that worked with me on this film, and some of them worked continuously on it for eight years. They risked their lives and their families' safety knowing that they would not be able to put their names on the film unless there is some real political change in Indonesia—and The Act of Killing is helping to make that change. The film is changing how Indonesia talks about its past and its corrupt present. The film would not be possible if it weren’t for these Indonesians who worked on the film, and one of them—my production manager and assistant director, like Christine—is credited as a co-director. This is a man who has given the better part of the last decade to this film and the saddest part of me leaving the film now is that he is unable to travel with me in presenting the film, because it would be dangerous for him to do so.

You have two well-known documentarians on board, in Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, as executive producers.  How did they get involved in the project?

People have been saying The Act of Killing is unlike any film they have seen before. [We live] in an age where our entertainment is more and more cut to formula, where our cinema and films are more about “entertainment” that is made more according to commercial formula. Suddenly, something comes out that is dealing with fundamental issues of violence, cinema and alienation, and the stories we tell to create our world—stories we tell to lie to ourselves, the stories we tell to escape from our most bitter and painful truth—and it captures people’s imagination in a way that is unexpected. I think Werner and Errol have helped people approach the film that might have otherwise thought it was obscure. The film could be seen as a work [about a] genocide that no one has heard of, and it's not in English and these are hurdles in the United States. Werner came on board after he saw the longer version of the film and gave some useful advice for cutting it down into a shorter version. Errol came on board on earlier, when he saw edited scenes of it, back in early 2010 and signed on and lendt his name to help executive produce and knew it would be helpful in the final stages of financing the film.

Before this interview, I watched the theatrical cut of the film [the shorter version], but the Walker will be showing both cuts [the theatrical and director’s cut] and the Lagoon will be showing the theatrical starting this Friday. Without giving away too much, what is in the director’s cut that was cut out of the theatrical cut? 

I think the director’s cut is a broader experience and provides greater understanding of how these things are possible. There is also more time to quietly be with the characters. It's not particularly more violent, it has more pauses where you digest and rest and invest in the characters in situations and then descend with them into that next painful act. Overall, the experience is more immersive and you feel more lost in his with Anwar in his nightmare in a slightly more profound way, so it truly becomes more of a “fever dream” if you like. At some point in both versions, it stopped being a documentary in some way, and it became a fever dream in which experience the horror and the devastation of what it means to be a human being who has done these things.

Has The Act of Killing been released in Indonesia, and have Anwar and Hernan seen the film?

They both have seen the film. Herman loves the film and Anwar, can’t really say he loves the film, but he is deeply moved by it. He watched it last November and he was very quiet after finishing it and a little bit tearful. He said he would stand by the film, since he has seen it, and it's surprising he would say that, because shortly after the film came out in Toronto, the paramilitary organization held a press conference where he was called to stand up and he was flanked by the leaders of the paramilitary organization and to speak about the film. Naturally, he had to denounce the film because he was standing in between two of their leaders and at that point, I encouraged him to do so and told him to say, “Look, you should say whatever feels right.” Since he did see the film, he continues to stand by it and we still remain in touch every three to four weeks. I think we always will. We have been through a very painful, long, profound journey together that I don’t expect I’ll ever go through with someone else. It has transformed me as a human being.

The question of what has happened with the screenings in Indonesia: we knew that this was a “banned film,” so we had to bring the film out in an underground way. All last autumn, we screened the film for Indonesia’s leading human rights advocates, filmmakers, historians, educators, artists, writers, and survivor groups and all of them loved the film and said we need to hold screenings of this film. On December 10 last year, International Human Rights Day, they took the film back to their communities and held 50 screenings. So as of April, there had been 500 screenings in 95 cities and every week since there the screenings keep growing.

Also, in the Indonesian news media, we screened it for editors, publishers, producers and the leading news outlets, and they were very moved by it. They [said], there is a before The Act of Killing and an after The Act of Killing, and now that this is out, we cannot go back: we have to break our 47-year silence on genocide. The largest news magazine in Indonesia, Temple Magazine, was so moved by the film, they thought they should come out with a special double edition of the magazine, which is the equivalent of Time magazine here in the U.S. They sent dozen of journalists around the country to record killers' testimony from around the country. Essentially, showing that Anwar is not unique and The Act of Killing is a repeatable experiment.

Within a couple weeks, they had gathered hundreds and hundreds of pages of boastful stories from perpetrators from all over Indonesia, even from regions where they didn’t even know killings had taken place before. To their horror, they found that everywhere they sent anybody they could simply ask, “Who was killing people in 1965?” and everybody knew because the army had recruited criminals like Anwar to do the killings, rewarded them with power, and then encouraged them to boast ever since. So they gathered all this testimony, edited it down to 75 pages of killers' testimony and another 25 pages about the film, and came out with a special double edition of their magazine. The issue came out on October 1 last year. It sold out immediately, they reprinted, it sold out again, and they reprinted again. It was the first time they ever had to reprint an issue, and the third reprinting sold out too. The whole nation’s imagination was both captured by the film and this new candor into the past, and the film has opened a new chapter in Indonesia;s relationship with its past.

What do you hope American audiences take away from the film?

I hope American audiences will recognize we are all much closer to perpetrators then we like to think. Of course, the perpetrators are always human beings like us; there are all acts of evil in our history. I hope also they look inward in recognize how this is not a distant reality but the underbelly of our reality. We all depend on men like Anwar and his friends to keep everything we buy cheap for our everyday survival, and in that sense, we are all guests of Anwar and his friend’s cannibalistic feast. We’re not as close to the slaughter but we’re at the table. Also, with American audiences who have seen the film, I have been really heartened by the courageous way in which Americans have been willing to see that these are human beings like us.

  • it's tempo magazine - by Aileen Yap on Mon, 09/30/2013 - 5:32am
  • equvalent to TIME - by Aileen Yap on Mon, 09/30/2013 - 5:32am
  • Take action on the issues raised by this important film. Impunity persists in Indonesia for the 1965-66 and later crimes committed by Indonesia's armed forces in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. Groups are supporting an appeal from survivors for the Indonesian government to acknowledge the truth about the 1965 crimes and to apologize and provide reparations to the victims and their families. See http://etan.org/action/saysorry.htm - by John M Miller on Sat, 08/03/2013 - 7:12am

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Jim Brunzell III's picture
Jim Brunzell III

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).