He’s been on the road promoting his film for about a year now, but that doesn’t mean Joshua Oppenheimer is any less passionate about his Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Act of Killing.” Ask the Texas-born, Denmark-residing director a question about his work and it may be a good 10 minutes before he comes up for air.
“The Act of Killing” is a one-of-a-kind film, in which Oppenheimer engages with former death squad vigilantes responsible for mass killings (an “anti-communist purge”) in Indonesia between 1965-66 and encourages them to recreate their experiences on a film within the film. Both films are centered around one vigilante in particular — Anwar Congo, a flashy, former street tough responsible for up to 1,000 killings. He was the 41st killer Oppenheimer had interviewed, but the first to show any hint of feeling troubled by what he had done.
Surely it must have been difficult, I ask Oppenheimer, to gain the trust of men like Congo and work with them over an extended period of time — and in some sense, to befriend them — while knowing what they had done? “I don’t know how to make an honest film about another human being without being close to them,” states the director. “People think documentarians should be objective, but I think in fact you need to be close, and it’s impossible to be close and objective. It’s the nature of human relationships. That made it harder.”
“I liked Anwar. But I don’t think we’re friends, because we were both trying to work out somethng much bigger than our relationship. He was trying to run away from a lifetime of pain; me, I was trying to use him, in a sense, to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of the survivors.”
Also at odds in the film are the dissonant moments of humor and horror. Congo and his thuggish cohort Herman Koto can often seem like comical figures — Congo in his fey pink cowboy hat, Koto in his hopelessly inept campaign for public office — before one recalls Congo’s past. “The humor in the film makes it more painful,” notes Oppenheimer, “because it opens us up to them as human beings, and then we’re yanked back into the horror. I think that’s the inherent tension that animates the whole film, as we walk a tightrope between empathy for a man tormented by guilt and repulsion at the crimes he’s describing.”
It’s hard not to be repulsed. These killers are unrepentant, almost gleefully recounting their past actions. Writer/philosopher Hannah Arendt, when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Final Solution, wrote of “the banality of evil,” how a dour pencil-pusher could serve unquestioningly as a mass murderer. “I thought a great deal about Arendt when making this,” muses Oppenheimer. Yet the men we meet in Oppenheimer’s film seem to demonstrate the opposite, the flamboyance of evil, with their gaudy outfits and posturing.
“Here (in Indonesia) the men have remained in power, and their flamboyance seems to be an instrument of terror. The killers don’t merely talk about what they did, they boast about it. Because they’re still in power, they’ve never been forced to admit what they’ve done was wrong. By letting them stage (it) themselves, we can begin to see how they want to be seen, how they see themselves, what they are trying to cover up.”
Since “The Act of Killing” was released, and especially since it was nominated for an Oscar, the impact it has had on Indonesia has been extensive. Part of the strategy to ensure the film could be viewed in Indonesia was to bypass a theatrical release — which Oppenheimer notes would be quite limited in Indonesia anyway — to avoid the official censors. “We knew that if the film were banned, it would become a crime to watch it, even at home,” notes Oppenheimer. “And if it’s a crime, that’s an excuse for the Pancasila Youth or other paramilitaries to physically attack screenings.”
So the film was instead made available on DVD and online (where it’s been downloaded within Indonesia over 3.5 million times), while Oppenheimer and his team enlisted support via private screenings in Jakarta. Indonesia’s influential Tempo Magazine was inspired enough to publish a special double edition which focused on the topic, and sold out immediately, followed by two reprints. Says Oppenheimer: “Indonesians were astonished that this holocaust, which underpins the whole political and economic system, was suddenly being talked about openly in the most important news publication in the country.”
Despite the extensive support the film has garnered, the horror is still very real. “Not that many years ago they killed my friend Munir Said Thalib (a prominent human rights activist), says Oppenhiemer. “He was going to Holland … and on the Garuda flight he was offered a free upgrade by a man pretending to be an off-duty pilot who said ‘take my seat in business class because I admire your work.’ They gave him a lethal dose of arsenic in his orange juice, and he died on the flight.” Notably, most of the film’s staff are listed as “Anonymous” in the credits.
Oppenheimer is resigned to the fact he won’t be returning to Indonesia anytime soon. “I can’t go back at the moment. I could get in, but I wouldn’t get out. They no longer maintain a blacklist, but I think I would quickly be noticed by military intelligence.”