As various conflicts continue to rage across the Indonesian archipelago, the ramifications of one particular event can still be felt. A botched—and still much debated—coup in 1965 brought President Suharto to power, and with it the sudden and brutal eradication of The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Anyone suspected of being a member was killed, their bodies dumped in ditches and mass graves that line the country. The exact figures may never be known, but upwards of a million people died in the space of a few years.
Many years later, in 2004, director Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia for a project that brought him in contact with a bunch of people who survived that period. By listening to their stories, he became a secondhand witness to the countless atrocities the people of North Sumatra had endured as well as committed. The elderly men he spoke to still lived in the same communities where their crimes had taken place and were only too happy to talk. These testimonies were what inspired Oppenheimer's latest feature film, The Act of Killing.
"All of the perpetrators I met were showing off, and were all performing instead of testifying," he explained when we spoke at the Berlinale film festival in Berlin. "By 2005 I wasn’t looking for a confession about what happened in 1965. I knew that simply providing documentation about the crimes that occurred was not sufficient to break the silence. In fact, the killers were talking about what happened all the time. And it didn’t constitute an exposé. By the time I started, I wanted to find out what the nature of the boasting was, and how it related to the fear I was seeing.’ "
The film focuses predominantly on Anwar Congo; a self-styled former gangster, playboy, and lover of American movies who made most of his money through scalping tickets at the local cinemas in Medan, the capital of that region. As the perceived threat of communism intensified across the country Anwar and his friends (including high-ranking officials) went on a bloody killing spree, killing thousands—encouraged by the machismo in the foreign films they admired. To date, none of them have been prosecuted.
Joshua Oppenheimer, photographed by Oliver Clasper for VICE.
When the audience first meets the white-haired Anwar, he has returned to the building in which he carried out a series of crimes between 1965 and '66. At first his methods were messy, he says, so he began using wire to garrote his victims because it was quick and clean. In the film he demonstrates this technique candidly. When the grueling segment is done, he dances the cha-cha.
As Oppenheimer saw it, Anwar was "somehow trying to get into his pain, trying to somehow make what he did OK by making a beautiful movie about it, but also by distancing himself through acting. I think something very dark was conjured up through the process. Ultimately, I don’t think Anwar has the strength to look in the mirror every day and say ‘Yes, what I did was wrong.’ I don’t think he knows how to live like that. His whole community has been about celebrating those facts, or sweeping them under the carpet."
Other notable figures in the film include Herman, a playful, rotund, ponytailed playground-bully type with political aspirations of his own, and Anwar’s old friend, Adi Zulkadry, who claims to feel no guilt or remorse for his crimes.
Throughout the filmmaking process, Oppenheimer encouraged them all to reenact the killings, allowing them to play both victims and perpetrators in increasingly lavish, camp, and outlandish setups—often dressed to the nines in sharp suits and hats, or even in women’s clothing. In one telling scene, Anwar takes the role of victim—bound, gagged, and harassed. It’s only acting, but the reconstruction leaves him feeling distraught and disorientated.
While the overwhelming majority of critics and filmgoers have lauded The Act of Killing, a few have questioned the director’s motives, concerned that by giving such an open platform to the perpetrators Oppenheimer has ignored the plight of the survivors. But the impression one gets by spending time with Oppenheimer (who also speaks Indonesian) is of a man deeply committed to both the aesthetics of cinema and the fundamental truths of harmony and reconciliation—which he insists must be sought whatever the consequences. "One of the problems is that human beings flinch," he says. "We mustn’t flinch from the truth, otherwise we’ll dance with our eyes closed over the cliff and right into the abyss."
He also suggests that the world is not as black and white as many of us tend to think, and that in order to find what we’re looking for, we must empathize with the enemy. "I remember my mother asking me if I’d forgiven Anwar, and I didn’t even understand the question. It occurred to me throughout the process of making this film that I don’t know how to judge people. I can see you are a human being who has done something bad, but I can’t take the next step and say you’re a bad human being. I think having family, on my father’s and my stepmother’s side, who died in the Holocaust, made me think: If we want to comprehend what happened, we have to understand that we don’t live in a Star Wars universe, where good and bad guys are clearly separated."
I n 2011, having accrued over 1,000 hours of footage, and with the editing process finally underway, a rough cut was shown to legendary directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who thought the film so important they agreed to become its executive producers. It wasn't only their names that would help push the film, but their considerable experience: "Werner Herzog said to me, 'Josh, art doesn’t make a difference… ' Then he looked at me for a long time in a way that only Werner Herzog can do, and said, '…until it does.'"
A scene from The Act of Killing.
The Act of Killing has already made a significant impact since it was first screened at Telluride, followed by its official premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will soon be heading to festivals in Hong Kong and SXSW, among others. More importantly, it has already been screened over 300 times in Indonesia, despite being banned in the country, and has been written about in countless magazine and newspaper articles there.
In many ways that is Oppenheimer’s chief aim: to be seen by the widest audience possible. "If we can’t get it in cinemas there, then we keep the discussion up until something big happens—like an Academy nomination," he says hopefully. "That would force the Indonesian government to take notice, or at least the Indonesian people. And then we would release it on DVD so everyone can have a copy. And I think this is a film that delivers on its promises. People have read about it and thought, Oh, it can’t possibly be like that, and have come out and thought that it was more than what they had read about. That’s what I’m most proud of."
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