Movie-Inspired Murders, the Burden of the Past, and Why He Can Never Return to Indonesia

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is like no other film ever made. Executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, it explores the millions of murders of “communists” — basically an umbrella term for anyone the government didn’t like — in 1960s Indonesia. These murders were never punished; in fact, the gangsters and paramilitary squads who committed them retain a great deal of power today. Oppenheimer worked with co-directors Christine Cynn and an Indonesian man who’s credited only as “anonymous,” and he admits that the film is so politically risky that he can never go back to Indonesia.

When he meets up with Anwar Congo, a gangster who admits to dealing with his nightmares through dancing and self-medicating, he approaches Anwar about making films exploring the torture and murder Anwar committed in the ‘60s. Anwar makes stylized films, in a number of genres, evoking these crimes, but when he plays a torture victim himself, something seems to click. The Act of Killing begins with boastful dreams of stardom and ends with a lonely old man puking his guts out. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, as well as a startling reflection on the relationship between cinema and violence.

Studio Daily: Did it surprise you that cinema played as big a role in Anwar Congo’s life as it did?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes, I was really surprised by it. I began this project in the countryside and worked my way towards Medan and tried to film every perpetrator I could find. When I got to Medan, there was a perfect combination of form and content. The army had recruited these death squad leaders from the ranks of movie-theater gangsters who had loved American movies, scalping tickets and using cinemas as the operational base for criminal activities like prostitution and gambling. I had to hear several times from Anwar that he got methods of killing from the movies. I must have filmed it four or five times before I understood that he literally meant it. The army had placed the offices of the paramilitary group and the newspaper associated with it directly across from the cinema so that it would be convenient for Anwar and his friends to walk out of the cinema and do the army’s dirty work. What turned out to be more important was that they used cinema to distance themselves from the act of killing. For Anwar, acting was his way of not being present during murders, disassociating himself from the moment of taking life. Having talked to a lot of killers, it’s both a traumatic moment and a transcendent moment: you become the star of your own movie.

Is the paramilitary now as steeped in American cinema as Anwar’s generation?

First of all, I don’t think the message of this movie is that violent movies beget violent behavior. The first 30 perpetrators I met were not watching films first. They killed many more people than Anwar, but they were drinking first instead. The act of killing is an act we need to distance ourselves from. Anwar says he got methods of killing from watching American gangster movies, but what he really got was a method of escaping reality. He says, “I would walk out of Elvis Presley movies dancing and go across the street to kill people happily.” Well, Elvis Presley movies aren’t violent. They’re just dumb. I love them, actually, because they reveal a lot in their stupidity. The danger is escapist fantasy. The biggest danger is the Star Wars fantasy that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys. Really, we’re all much closer to perpetrators. The reality you see in The Act of Killing is our underbelly. Every piece of clothing we own is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. They’re all working in factories located in places where political violence has taken place. The human cost is incorporated into the price tag we for it. We depend on Anwar and his friends for our everyday living. I was asked recently if the films-within-the-film draw more on Indonesian cinema than American cinema. There was a strong neo-realist Indonesian cinema until 1965, which has been totally obliterated. Negatives were burned. We’ve lost it, and it’s been replaced by violent, kitschy reworkings of American film, both in horror films and soap opera, which the paramilitary youth love. The rotten core of Indonesian cinema is the repressed terror of the society’s violence.

Do you think that disassociating himself is a psychological way of dealing with his actions?

I had filmed many other perpetrators. Anwar was the 41st. I had expected to make a film with the simple reenactments, like where Anwar shows he strangled people with wire on the roof. I lingered on Anwar, like when he dances on the roof. I was collaborating with human rights activists and saw these reenactments as moments of impunity. I thought you couldn’t possibly be so far in denial about what you did. When Anwar dances the cha-cha-cha on the roof, I saw it as an allegory about impunity. It’s a grotesque example. But what’s really happening is that, as he says, “I’m a good dancer because I was dancing, drinking, and taking drugs to forget what I did.” Then when I screened it back to him, the very next day, he looked very disturbed, but he dared not say it because he’s never forced to say it. He displaces it onto his clothes and hair. I thought, “I’m producing this incredible allegory about Indonesian impunity.” There would be a space to demand truth, reconciliation and justice. I wasn’t looking for Anwar’s conscience to appear, but it was the motor for the whole process. In fact, he’s running away from the horror of it. Otherwise, he couldn’t make a cowboy movie about it. He’s trying to insist to the world that he’s OK. It becomes inevitable that if you place these reenactments under a microscope, they become the prism under which he recognizes his burden of self.

Did you have it always in mind that you were going to use your subjects in the reenactments, as opposed to actors?

Anwar was the 41st, I said. By the time I met 15 or 20, I understood what had happened. The purpose of reenactments is not to illustrate what happened. It’s not a forensic “what if,” as in some of Errol Morris’ films. It was about the nature of having a past, and the nature of these men’s boasting. How do I think about their boasting? The very first man I met boasted in front of his grandchildren. What I was doing was very simple. I told the men that I wanted to understand how mass killing had shaped their society. I would film it in any way they wished. I’ll film a reenactment. I didn’t even know if it would become a documentary.

Do they understand that they really aren’t heroes?

If you or I had killed, for power, money or under legal sanction, we’d come up with ways to justify it. Adi [Zulkadry], the other killer in the film, is quite an educated man. If you’re not confident in your justifications, it can spill over into celebration and become strident. So this kind of seemingly shameless and naive celebration of mass killing is not necessarily a symptom of the lack of remorse. It can be an attempt to regain one’s humanity. Once you’ve corrupted yourself by killing once, it triggers a downward spiral and almost necessitates that you do it again. You see it on the talk show where they threaten the survivors. You can extort them. Not doing it again is like admitting it was wrong the first time.

The other piece of it is that in North Sumatra, the perpetrators were, like everywhere else, recruited from the ranks of gangsters. Fear is the capital of gangsters. You can’t go to a market and extort money from people if they’re not afraid. It’s utterly rational for the younger generation of gangsters to boast about the horrible things they’ve done.

When did you realize that Anwar had a character arc you could follow?

It became clear when he started talking about his nightmares, but I was resistant to it. I came to this project with the goal of exposing human rights abuses and working for Indonesians. Until I knew that I could expose rot at all levels of Indonesian “democracy” and the high-ranking politicians, I was very resistant to going into an individual killer’s psychology. This is about a huge systemic problem. There was something obscene about leading a killer to redemption or catharsis. I’m not a therapist. A therapist has to be loyal to what’s right for his or her patient. I was a filmmaker, and my loyalties were to the human rights group. Anwar was trying to run away from his pain. I was resistant to a journey in which he recognizes what he’s done. That’s why the film is not sentimental. He offers a generic, false confession and says “Now I feel what my victims felt.” I could have let that lie and ended the film with it. Because I was resisting it, it was so evident that he was making a movie and they were being killed. It’s not the same thing.

But then he goes on to visit the torture chamber and throw up. He seems to achieve a real catharsis.

Catharsis is the wrong word, because it implies release. He tries to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, but nothing comes up. It’s almost as though he is the ghost. He will never escape his past. The bottom drops out. He’s staring into the unbridgeable abyss between the horror that he’s put people through and the myriad stories he’s told himself. He sees it in his nightmares, but he glimpses that he’ll never put it right. That’s what happens to him at the end.

When you originally approached the killers, what did you say to them?

At the beginning, I was more circumspect. I didn’t know if we’d get in trouble. The method of the film is not a lure to get them to open up. It’s a response to their openness. Why are they boasting? How do they want to be seen? Throughout the film, Anwar’s watching the scenes. I would never plan more than one or two scenes ahead. We’d shoot a scene, Anwar would watch it, and then we’d decide what to do next. The film is largely chronological. But what nothing could prepare you for is the way the whole film is a dark mirror held up to him, his whole society and all of us.

How did Anwar react to the special makeup effects in the films-within-the-film?

Sometimes the effects are terrible. Usually, they were done by the Indonesian state television crews. There, I was interested in the fakeness of it. Here was a group of perpetrators and people whose job it was make to escapist television, unable to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The fakeness of it all only serves to make the real all the more terrifying. The terrible makeup job they do and the bad severed-head effect makes the real horror going on inside Anwar manifest, in contrast with the fakeness. When Anwar went deeply into his memories, we would shut the set down and I would become his crew. He would show me the kind of lighting he wanted, from old gangster films. He could direct it, although either he or I called “cut” depicting how deeply he got into it. We had two cameras filming. The gangster scenes are genuinely atmospheric.

There’s a credit calling The Act of Killing “a film by Joshua Oppenheimer,” but there are also two co-directors credited: “Anonymous” and Christine Cynn. How did you work with them?

Well, I was the lead director throughout the shooting. Christine was someone I worked with before, part of the time when I was working with survivors. She came to an important shoot in 2006 as a co-director and she came one more time after that. But she was not around for the rest of the shoot or in the editing room. When it came time to give credit, I felt that every part of the process was important, so she should have that credit.

The case of “Anonymous” is very different. He was my production manager, my assistant director, my second camera person, and he helped as an assistant editor. He was my main creative sounding board. He worked on this film for eight years, risking his life, knowing he could probably never get credit for it. I think what really made me feel that he deserved credit as a co-director is that he kept me fluent in Indonesia. He answered questions about what was proper about filming there. It was crucial for the film not to be seen as a stranger’s take on the country. Instead, it’s really been welcomed as a work of Indonesian cinema. It’s been embraced there, and I’ve even been embraced as an Indonesian filmmaker. I have one more film made in Indonesia which I’ve already shot, which I’m editing now. Obviously, I can’t go back there — I’d never get out.

The Act of Killing opens in New York City July 19, in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. July 26, and wider on August 2. For a full schedule, visit the film’s official website.

Photo [top] by Anonymous. All photos courtesy of Drafthouse Films.