Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a transformative film. It presents a glimpse into one of the 20th century’s lesser-known political mass killings: the extermination of suspected communists in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Unlike many other documentaries, however, The Act of Killing tells history through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Oppenheimer said that when he first started working in Indonesia, he was shocked to hear former executioners boasting about their many killings. The paramilitary groups that helped perpetrate the genocide still had power, and society continued to uphold them as heroes. In order to understand their boasting, Oppenheimer and his crew asked Anwar Congo, a retired executioner, and other
members of the paramilitary group Pancasila Youth, to tell their story by reenacting their killings on film.
The result is as haunting as it is absurd. Anwar, the film’s central figure, jumps from genre to genre as he struggles to capture his past. He casts himself first as a tough guy in a riff on American gangster films, then later as a bloodied corpse in a nightmare scenario where one of his victims seeks post-mortem revenge, and later as a victim of the same violence he perpetrated against others.
Remarkably, when Anwar is given the chance to bring this twisted vision to cinematic life, it takes him to a more honest place. As the film progresses, Anwar’s boastful facade breaks down, and the trauma of what he has done begins to surface. “I never expected it to look so awful,” he says while they shoot the burning and pillaging of a suspected communist’s house. He appears disturbed and wonders what has become of the children of his victims. From this point on, his view of himself as a hero corrodes.
The Act of Killing did not only force Anwar to rethink the past. Within Indonesia, the film has opened conversations about the events of 1965-66. Viewers of the film are forced to view the atrocities from a new and disturbing perspective, – and to see that the victims are not the only ones who’s lives were destroyed. In an interview with Hannah Green, Oppenheimer told Asia Times Online about the transformations that The Act of Killing have brought to Indonesia, to Anwar, and to himself.
Hannah Green: Tell me about the Indonesian media’s response to the film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Last autumn, we held screenings at Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta for Indonesia’s leading journalists, news publishers, and news producers. Everyone who saw the film was extremely moved, and basically left the screening saying there was a time before The Act of Killing; now we’re in the time afterwards, and there’s no going back. There’s no stuffing this genie back in the bottle. The story in The Act of Killing is so emotionally and forcefully told, and by the perpetrators themselves, so there’s no denying it.
Tempo Magazine, Indonesia’s leading news magazine, had the most powerful response. If you imagine you’re the publisher or editor of Tempo Magazine, you’re very much part of Indonesia’s establishment. You’re in your late middle age, and you see a movie where the men who, if they were the heroes they claimed to be, ought to be enjoying the fruits of their heroic victory in their old age. Instead they’re totally destroyed by what they’ve done. Anwar is devastated, ravaged by it, tormented by it. If you see that, you’re faced with a pretty stark choice. Do you want to grow old as a perpetrator or do you want to actually, somehow, break this silence and take a stand?
Tempo Magazine decided to break the silence. And to do that they marshaled fresh evidence about the killings. They sent dozens of journalists around the country to see if The Act of Killing is a repeatable experiment, to places where they didn’t even know if the killings had taken place. To their horror, but I do not think to their astonishment, everywhere they sent journalists, within minutes they could find somebody who knew who the executioner was in the region. They recorded hundreds of pages of boastful testimony in just a couple weeks last autumn, which they edited down into a special double edition of Tempo Magazine on the first of October last year.
From what I understand the magazine sold out immediately because nobody had ever seen anything like it in the Indonesian media. They reprinted it, it sold out again, they reprinted it and it sold out a third time. And then the rest of the media followed suit and they started producing their own investigations and discussions of the killings. As of April, there have been 500 screenings in 95 cities, and the film has completely changed the way Indonesians talk about this history.
The media has been slower to report on the present-day corruption that is predicated on the impunity of the genocide. Last autumn, the newspaper Radar Bogor published a headline about the film: “The world condemns Pancasila Youth.” Radar Bogor then was attacked. A mob of 500 Pancasila Youth members surrounded the office of this newspaper, called the editor out and beat him. So at that point I noticed that this was really the first paper to name Pancasila Youth as the paramilitary group depicted in the film. The contemporary corruption has been less well covered.
HG: How did you begin working in Indonesia?
JO: I went to Indonesia first in 2001 with Christine Cynn to make a film about globalization in the agricultural sector. I was asked to make a film about a group of oil palm plantation workers on a Belgian-owned plantation, documenting their struggle to organize a union and the abuse that they face working for this Belgian plantation company. Unions had been illegal throughout the Suharto dictatorship and there was still a lot of intimidation preventing them from organizing in 2001. They desperately needed one, though, because the women workers were spraying a chemical called paraquat, and it was destroying their livers. Some of them were dying in their 40s as a result of liver damage from these chemicals.
It turned out they were afraid to organize a union because their parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents had been in a union that had been quite effective until ’65. They were accused of being communist sympathizers just because they were in a union, put in concentration camps by the army and dispatched out to local death squads to be killed. The plantation workers we were working with were afraid this could happen again. That was my first encounter with Indonesia and my first encounter with the 1965-66 genocide.
HG: How did you get the idea for this film and how did you find Anwar?
JO: When I was making the first film in Indonesia with Christine Cynn, we would be sent on these pretty painful missions to film with the neighbors of these plantation workers, who the plantation workers knew were perpetrators, and hoped might have information about how their loved ones had died. So, we would go to meet neighbors, and we would approach them cautiously, sort of asking questions about what they had done for a living before they retired. And they would answer these questions immediately with boastful stories of killing, because the killings had been the basis of whatever career they would have afterwards, and of course the killings were the most important things they had ever done with their lives, in a very dark way.
At the same time, when we would film with the survivors and we were asking them questions about ’65, the military would invariably come and stop us. They would take our equipment; they would take our tapes. Luckily they weren’t able to play the tapes with their equipment. It became very difficult to film anything with the survivors. I had this realization that I had walked into a place where there had been genocide and the perpetrators had won, where they had been in power ever since. I felt as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis were in power. And I felt that I would have to give this situation whatever it took of my life to try and understand it.
I also felt that because I’d begun this journey in collaboration with the plantation workers, I entered this situation knowing that this is probably not an extraordinary situation. It’s a terrible situation, an important situation, but it is absolutely ordinary, in the sense that everything we buy that comes from the Global South is almost invariably produced in places like the Indonesia in The Act of Killing. Places where there has been mass political violence, where perpetrators have won, where in their victory they’ve built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy, whether it’s palm oil or the T-shirt I’m wearing now, are too oppressed and afraid to get the human cost of what we buy incorporated in the price tag that we pay.
After making this first film in Indonesia, Christine Cynn and I went back straightaway to continue working with survivors. Yet we didn’t know how to film with the survivors because we were being stopped. One of the survivors said, Josh, continue to film the perpetrators. You filmed them a little bit. You’ve heard how they boast. In their boasting, the audience will see why people are so afraid, and in their apparent pride (as though she knew they weren’t necessarily really proud), the audience will see the nature of this regime.
So I filmed every perpetrator I could find across the North Sumatran plantation belt, up the chain of command to the city of Medan where I met Anwar and his friends, and beyond to some of the retired army generals living in Jakarta, and even beyond that to some retired CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] officers living outside of Washington DC who had provided the Indonesian army with thousands of names that Washington wanted killed. Names of intellectuals, union leaders, women’s rights advocates and so forth, and of course members of the Communist Party, some of them. So that was how I came to find Anwar, that’s how I came to make this film.
HG: How do you think making this film changed Anwar? How did it change you?
JO: It has changed me totally. All of my notions of what it means to be a human probably have somehow been shaped through making this film. I think that I’m probably more uncompromising than ever in condemning evil actions, at the same time as I refuse to make the leap from condemning the person’s actions to condemning the entire human being. Because I may wish that if I had grown up as Anwar, I would not have made the choices Anwar made. I know I’m extremely lucky never to have to find out.
It’s been an enormous journey for Anwar. It’s shaped us both. It was a five-year process. I think Anwar began this process somehow trying to run away from his pain. Every scene is an insistence on a kind of denial in the sense that you can’t stage a cowboy scene or a musical number about mass killing and not be in denial about the moral meaning of what you have done. So Anwar watches his first reenactments and is disturbed by what he sees, by the killing that he did.
And to dispel that trauma or that regret he insists on banishing the moral meaning of what he’s done by proposing an embellishment that is in of itself a denial of what he’s done. He proposes a new genre, a new costume, a new location. What’s fueling the process of each scene that Anwar creates is a desperate attempt to run away from his pain. In that sense, what’s fueling it is his own conscience.
In hindsight, I think it’s not surprising that the reenactments themselves become this kind of dark prism through which he, ultimately, instead of running away from his pain, is confronted with the real horror of what he’s done. And that’s changed him. I don’t think it’s led him to a place of resolved, conscious remorse, because Anwar has never been forced to admit what he’s done is wrong by society. But I think that the pain is close to the surface. You know, I’m still in touch with Anwar every three to four weeks, and he seems more at peace with what he’s done and more resigned to what he’s done than he was when I first met him.
HG: Has Anwar seen the completed film? If so, what was his reaction?
JO: He saw the film around the time that Indonesia started really seeing the film, in a private screening just for him. He was very moved. He was quiet for a long time afterward. A little bit tearful, he finally spoke and said “This film shows what it is like to be me. This is an honest film. I’m glad I had the opportunity to be finally honest about my feelings about what I’ve done. I’ve talked about it for so many years but never was able to talk about in a way that was honest. I’m glad that I’ve had that chance.”
And he and I have been in touch ever since he’s seen it, every few weeks, in part to make sure that he’s not blamed for making the film by the paramilitary group in particular, Pancasila Youth. They could blame him for making them look bad. They have not done so, which is great, but they’ve decided to blame me instead. I’m also in touch with him because he and I have gone through a very dark and very painful and very intimate journey of five years, which has transformed both of us.
Hannah Green is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.