While the past decade has seen the comeback of reenactment within the non-fiction film, none has pushed the device to such intricate and chilling extremes as Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary about the Indonesian genocide, The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer’s film functions as a portrait of Anwar Congo, an elderly, charismatic, and sometimes comical Indonesian who in 1965 went from small-time criminal to anti-Communist deathsquad leader. Working with a local crew that has remained anonymous for reasons of safety, the American filmmaker asked Anwar to re-enact the atrocities he and his counterparts once committed—and of which they are still outwardly, if inconceivably, proud. As the film proceeds, however, the restagings turn increasingly ornate and surreal—moving from the deadpan banality of evil to the kitschy absurdity of misplaced atonement, and ultimately, the impasse of ethical nausea. Given its tone and themes, it is no surprise that The Act of Killing received superlative praise from both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who have since served as executive producers. And as with the work of both, Oppenheimer’s documentary is sure to catalyze much new discussion on the questions of ethics, representation, and historical truth.
Joshua Sperling (Rail): The Act of Killing is a film rooted in the history of Indonesia. As an American, how did you first get interested in the country? You spent many years there and are speaking Indonesian in the film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: I was developing experimental documentary methods in London, where I was living, and I was sent to Indonesia to make a film about workers trying to organize a union. I could have been sent to Malaysia, to Colombia to anywhere, but I was sent there.
Rail: Was that when you first encountered the country’s past?
Oppenheimer: Yes. I was sent to a community of plantation workers who were struggling to unionize right after the Suharto dictatorship. During my filming, I saw that their biggest obstacle was fear. Fear because their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents had all been part of a union that fought off the worst excesses of Dutch colonialism—but was then banned in 1965 for being leftist. Union members were put into concentration camps and killed. The workers I met during my filming were afraid that something similar could happen to them again. And they were afraid to talk about what had happened before. It was clear we had to tell this story, but the killers were living all around us in the village.
Rail: What became of that first film?
Oppenheimer: I had to make it quickly. It was called the Globalization Tapes. But I became very close to the people I met. I tried to work with them to break the silence about what had happened in ’65–’66—and also to document the regime of fear and violence under which they were still suffering. But whenever we filmed we would be disrupted. The military would come and arrest us. The equipment would get taken. We found it impossible to make a film about the survivors.
Rail: It’s unsettling to watch any film about genocide—but it’s especially unsettling to watch a film that focuses almost exclusively on the perpetrators rather than the survivors or bystanders. How did you get in touch with the subjects of The Act of Killing? And how did you approach them?
Oppenheimer: I had filmed one of the perpetrators for the Globalization Tapes. I remember he was very boastful when telling his story in front of his young granddaughter, who looked on, bored, as if she had heard it many times before. It was really disturbing. So at first my reasoning was practical. I thought the perpetrators would talk because they’re in power. And if that boastfulness turned out to be universal or common, then the viewer would see at once the nature of this regime.
Rail: How did you find Anwar Congo?
Oppenheimer: I started with that first guy I filmed in the Globalization Tapes and asked him to introduce me to every other killer he knew. I filmed every killer I could find, feeling that this was of world–historical importance. Maybe hundreds of thousands of people died in one region—and no one had documented it. There was some documentation in other areas of Indonesia, but nothing in Sumatra. I thought the killers were old and they would die, and as they died, the facts about what had happened would be lost. I worked my way across the region and up the chain of command to Army Generals in Jakarta, and even to some retired C.I.A. officers working out of Washington, D.C. Anwar was the 41st killer I met.
Rail: Throughout the Act of Killing it’s as if you’ve stumbled down a rabbit hole to an alternate moral universe. The surreality is at its root an ethical disorientation. Were most of them proud of what they’d done?
Oppenheimer: All the killers I’d been filming with were virtually falling over themselves to tell me what they did and take me to the places where they killed, to show me how they did it—just as Anwar does it in the first scene I filmed with him on the roof [where the torture took place]. I remember he said—“We have to reenact this properly.” There was a compulsion to show. Yet as I met more and more of them I saw that they were just ordinary people. Maybe I went in with the fascination of meeting murderers or monsters. But I found that they were not monsters. They’re just people with families—really normal people who are damaged by what they’ve done.
Rail: What did you tell Anwar when you met him?
Oppenheimer: I was very straightforward. I said, “Look, you’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. Your whole society’s based on it. Your lives have been shaped by it. I want to understand what this means to you, how you want to be seen, and how you see yourself.” I asked him to dramatize whatever he wished. It could be his feelings—as in the waterfall scene—and we’ll put it together to make a new form of documentary: a documentary of the imagination. And that’s what I think it is: a film that looks at the stories we tell about our reality, that can make our reality visible. It’s like putting reality through a prism and showing all the fantasies and stories—often incoherent, contradictory, unconscious—by which we make our reality and ourselves.
Rail: Was there ever a sense that you were entering from within a Trojan horse?
Oppenheimer: No. What they didn’t know was that I was in sympathy and in collaboration with the human rights community. But I didn’t have to lie. I could be very direct and say, “How did you exterminate the communists in this village?” Words like “exterminate,” words like “kill,” even words like “torture,” had a heroic nuance to them. There was no need to euphemize. I simply had to treat them as human beings. And I needed their full collaboration. I couldn’t make them think we were working on a film that we weren’t. If that were the case there would have to be a good plot, a release plan. It was much better to tell the truth and say, “I want to know what this means to you. Let’s make scenes together about it.” And then I had to be decent and kind to them—which was easy by then. When viewers see Anwar at the beginning of the film, they inevitably go through all the shock I went through when I filmed my first killer. But by then I knew they were ordinary people.
Rail: So you didn’t feel that you were sleeping with the enemy?
Oppenheimer: After I first interviewed a perpetrator, his wife sent a gift of fried bananas to my house in the plantation village. I accepted the bananas nicely, and then I threw them away, thinking I’m not going to eat their food. I guess that is the feeling of disgust, where viewers start in the Act of Killing. But by the time I got to Anwar, I was long over that. I’d been filming with many, many perpetrators. I was getting to know them. Some of them I could like as people. They could be nice. Of course, there’s nothing sacred about being nice.
Rail: Did you ever doubt the veracity of their boasts?
Oppenheimer: No—because usually I had survivors to verify it. And I always filmed people separately. Many of them were involved with the same death squad and their stories matched. And if they wanted to do something that was a pure cinematic fantasy—like “let’s go mow down the people in this village with machine guns”—I would say, “but you never did that.” [Laughs]
Rail: I wanted to ask about humor because it plays such a central and unexpected role in the film. At the MoMa New Directors/New Films screening, in your introduction, you gave the audience permission to laugh. Is that something you find audiences to be initially uncomfortable with? Do you see the humor as therapeutic? Or simply as one part of the story?
Oppenheimer: There are different types of humor in the film. For example, when Hariman [Anwar’s friend] sits in front of the fish and sings a song. Why do we laugh at him? We’re not laughing at him because he’s a buffoon—and we’re not laughing at his joke. I think we’re laughing because he’s so open. Here is a fat, obviously heterosexual gangster in a dress, singing us a song. And it’s so generous of him. That scene makes us feel warm to him. It’s a naïve openness.
Rail: It’s almost reminds me of Kim Jong-Il or Qaddafi.
Oppenheimer: No, I think it’s different because Kim Jong-Il and Qaddafi are always self-conscious and self-aware. When we laugh at the men in the Act of Killing, it’s because they’re generous and they’re not conscious. They’re letting us in. And that’s what I look for in anyone I film. Anwar had a few sidekicks he wanted to be in the film who I never used because they were boring. I was looking for people who were open. That openness would warm us to them, so that when they are doing something terrible in the next moment, we think of them as human. We identify with them. We see that evil is human. This is in contrast with how most films—fiction or documentary—deal with evil acts, where the ominous score anticipates the evil so when it comes you’re prepared, you’ve already judged it. This is exactly the opposite. We go into evil liking the men who’ve done it. And that’s one big role for the humor in the film. And yet after a couple rounds of that cycle, some viewers feel like they better not laugh anymore as the next thing could be awful. That’s fine. I think some viewers just feel guilty laughing at any movie about evil.
Rail: The humor often comes from a deadpan cinematic gaze.
Oppenheimer: Yes—it’s very important that the film, in some ways, works like an observational documentary. It’s just not an observational documentary about everyday life. It’s an observational documentary of the imagination. And in the longer version, where the rhythm’s a little slower, you can feel a slow mounting of the absurdity, until things become really absurd. And that’s another kind of humor people should feel comfortable laughing at.
Rail: How has the film been received in the different places it’s been screened?
Oppenheimer: The New York audience has been great. I was surprised, because in our director’s cut screening there was very little laughter. Instead, many people were trembling and crying at the end. What’s interesting is that Indonesians, when they see the film, will be totally moved, but they’ll laugh a lot. And they’re laughing out of joy—because they’re finally seeing the killers exposing their own hypocrisy. In Berlin, however, some German viewers asked me how anyone could laugh at the film. And that’s where it goes to the therapeutic value of laughter. Someone else said we have to laugh—it’s a survival strategy. But it’s also joyful to see this thing exposed. So that’s the kind of laughter I give permission to people to have. And yet, I get scared. The jokes are of course put there. You edit humor into the film. So I was scared yesterday [in New York] when no one was laughing.
Rail: I was curious about the editing process—and the story arc of Anwar’s nightmares growing in intensity. Does that arc reflect the shooting process itself? Or was it something that came to you when you began to edit and organize the footage?
Oppenheimer: Anwar was telling the stories of his nightmares very early on—just as he does in the film. I think the question goes back to what is really motivating Anwar. From the very beginning, I think Anwar was not trying to glorify what he did, but rather, as he says, to make a beautiful family movie about mass killing—in the hope that if he can make it beautiful in the movie, he can make it okay for himself. He’s running away from a shapeless miasmic terror by replacing incoherent memories with these fiction scenes. Just as psychologists say that if you go through trauma you should build a narrative scar tissue around it by talking about what happened to you. I think Anwar is trying to do the same thing. And in a sense, it’s a kind of denial. He’s trying to deny the meaning of what he did, by saying it’s just a movie, it’s only a movie—just as he would distance himself from the act of killing by acting out what he saw in the cinema. Acting was a part of the act of killing. I think that’s how he managed to do it and do it again. In the years afterward he’s managed to live with it, but in scene[?] the terror that he was trying to contain or replace would slip away, and he would get more and more desperate until finally he goes right to the source of the nightmare itself. And when that doesn’t capture the real, the horror, he then goes to the worst of the killing in the massacre scene and then he finally goes to what he saw his victims experiencing. That was the emotional trajectory of his journey and I think I knew it was over at the scene on the roof when he choked. It was like he was trying to vomit up the ghosts, the horror that he can’t seem to distance himself from.
Rail: I found the final scene to be the most unexpected and harrowing. From other documentary portraits, I was of course waiting for the usual climax: the ‘crying moment’ when the subject finally unearths the repressed. And so when Anwar cried I was, in a way, ready for it. But when he choked and vomited, I was completely taken aback.
Oppenheimer: When he was choking I wanted, as a human being who had some love for this man, to go up to him and say, “It’s okay,” which is this stupid thing we say in English. And yet I knew it wasn’t going to be okay in that moment. I thought, “Oh my god. He’s choking because of the terror. He’s choking on the rising terror that comes with realizing it’s not going to be okay. He’s staring at the abyss between all his efforts to distance himself from his past and the reality of what he’s done—between his fictional self and his real self—and there’s nothing for him to do.”
Rail: The act of choking, as opposed to crying, is such a different bodily reaction to serve as a narrative terminus.
Oppenheimer: I was not trying to lead Anwar to a catharsis. I don’t think the film has a catharsis. It has an anti-catharsis. He’s trying to vomit up the ghosts, but he is the ghost, because he’s destroyed himself. He is his past. He’s not going to get it out. I was trying to expose a regime of impunity. He was trying to run away from his fear. He was trying to run away from the horror. And this meant that we were at cross-purposes, and it was therefore not a psychodrama at all. And therefore, when he starts to give his confession, “I now feel what my victims feel.” It was immediately apparent to me that, “No—no you don’t.”