Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” which opened last Friday, is one of the most jarring films that will be released this year. The self-proclaimed “documentary of the imagination” focuses on Anwar Congo and other death squad members who perpetrated the mass murder of suspected communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia starting in 1965. While one might expect these men to feel remorse for their actions, the film shows that the reality is the opposite — they are proud of what they’ve done.
The seed for the film was planted while Oppenheimer was shooting a documentary about Indonesian plantation workers trying to unionize during the early 2000s. It was then that he met survivors of the 1965 killings, many of whom were still too afraid to talk about what had happened. But as one of the subjects of that first film pointed out, in order to tell the story, Oppenheimer needed to talk to the boastful perpetrators themselves.
“I would approach them with some circumspection, and the answers I would get, immediately, they would answer with gruesome and boastful stories of the killings,” the director said of the subjects in his latest film. “This shocking openness in front of their children and grandchildren. I started to ask, what is this openness? Why are they boasting?”
The perpetrators, many of whom had been gangsters before being conscripted by the military regime, view themselves as heroes who helped shape their country. The death squads they were members of would eventually evolve into a powerful right-wing paramilitary group, Pancasila Youth. And this is why Congo and his friends were so willing to speak to Oppenheimer, gleefully recreating their crimes while he filmed: They are the winners.
“We’d get to the place where they’d killed,” Oppenheimer told ARTINFO, “and they’d launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they’d killed, then they would complain that they hadn’t thought to bring along a machete, or some other member of their squad to play a victim.”
But as proud as the culprits may be of what they’ve done, their actions are less likely to be viewed similarly outside their sphere of influence. And this, the film’s main purpose, put Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and the rest of their crew at risk. The criticism they were opening their subjects up to could easily cost them cooperation and more.
“I would only screen footage back to people if I really thought it was important, because I knew there was a risk of losing my access, them saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, this makes me look bad,’” Oppenheimer said about showing footage to Congo. “And indeed at that moment I had an Indonesian production manager at the airport with cash, ready to buy tickets for the whole crew to leave, if he did not receive a text message saying everything was OK. Because I thought he would watch that footage, say, ‘I’m not going to do this, this makes me look bad,’ and call the police.”
But Oppenheimer could tell that the footage got to Congo. It actually caused the former death squad leader to confront the consequences of his actions, something he’d spent the proceeding years avoiding. “He’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong, so he doesn’t dare do so,” the filmmaker said. “Because the moment you say this is wrong, you have to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see a murder.”
And while Congo may still not be willing to accept that he is a murderer, the film makes it clear, especially during a final harrowing, retching segment, that he’s been affected.
Many viewers will want to know what Congo thinks of the film, and in statements made after it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year, he distanced himself from “The Act of Killing” and its director, saying that he’d been misled. But since then, according to Oppenheimer, Congo has viewed it and appreciates it.
“He was very moved by the film,” said Oppenheimer. “He cried when he saw the film, he was silent for a long time, and then he said, ‘This film shows what it’s like to be me, and I’m glad I was able to feel honest in the film and I will always remain loyal to our film.’ And in fact since he’s seen it, he has.”
“The Act of Killing” isn’t enjoyable, but it’s powerful — the kind of documentary that has a lasting effect. Oppenheimer wanted to bring attention to what happened in Indonesia during the mid 1960s, and by getting the men who carried out these atrocious crimes to talk candidly about the experience, that’s exactly what this “documentary of the imagination” does.