The director on his BAFTA-winning documentary, in which harrowing Indonesian death squads re-enact past crimes
Director Joshua Oppenheimer journeyed into the depths of a scarred Indonesia to make The Act of Killing, which breaks a 40-year silence over the execution of over a million people by the military after it overthrew the Indonesian government. Given the oppressive climate of fear and the close-living proximity of survivors and murderers, he realised that to tell this story he would need the cooperation of the perpetrators and those in power. “I could see the contours of an enormous story about impunity,” he says, “about a regime in which the celebration of genocide was used to keep everybody afraid.” As he ascended through the ranks he encountered men delighted to share shocking anecdotes. Stunned by their pride, Oppenheimer became fascinated by the imagined space of their personas and their identification with American pop culture and politics, and helped them construct cinematic re-enactments of their brutal memories.
“I realised that if these boastful, seemingly content perpetrators were given the space to stage for themselves what they did, how they did it and how they feel about what they did,” Oppenheimer says, “I would be able to answer my questions: how do these men imagine themselves? How do they want me to imagine them? How do they want to be imagined by their society, by the rest of the world? And most importantly, what happens to our humanity when we build our everyday reality on lies and terror? I realised, in short, that my method would create the conditions for an observational documentary of the imagination.”
Werner Herzog and Errol Morris were profoundly impressed by previews of the film, and came onboard as executive producers. Master documentarist Morris was struck by the depth of its vision. “The Act of Killing is unlike any documentary I have ever seen,” he says. “It’s not a film about Indonesian history, or a film about violence; it’s something deeper.” In particular, Morris was fascinated by the psychological implications within the film’s reconstructions, and what emerged through the killers’ performances of their memories. “I was drawn to the film by Joshua Oppenheimer’s use of re-enactments: the singing and the dancing, the quality of nightmare. They are used not to find out what happened in 1965, but what is happening today in the minds of the people who were responsible. And that question is connected to another — Peer Gynt’s question, Hamlet’s question. What is man? What is history? Can we ever escape from our past? Or does it lie dormant inside us, waiting to come back to life?”
At the core of The Act of Killing is the ruthlessly violent past and unconscious trauma of former executioner Anwar Congo, who is becoming aware of the truth of his actions in his old age through the making of this film. “By re-enacting, he hopes he can contain – in gesture, language, performance – what happened,” the director says. “He can move from the miasmic horror of his trauma, which visits him nightly in his nightmares, to something more safe. When he does the re-enactments, he finds himself unexpectedly reliving the way he was acting in the past. That leads to a very dark journey for Anwar, and for all of us involved in the film.” The lurid subterranean fantasies the perpetrators recreate reflect the fictional escape that their trips to the movies enabled. As he participated in these strange visions of reality and perception, Oppenheimer was disturbed by the horror of it all. “I experienced intense guilt, and I felt we had created something beastly, very personal. It was crucial to me that Anwar be understood as a part of a society, a tool used by a much bigger, corrupt regime. It was a very hard time. I couldn’t sleep for days on end.”
As an experienced filmmaker and genocide researcher, Oppenheimer was sensitive to the history of destruction into which he was entering. “When human beings destroy other people’s lives, and destroy their own in the process, they create a profound mess. A filmmaker must realise that if she is to wade into the morass, the chaos, of atrocity and mass killing, language will always be incoherent, and reason will mostly, as Rousseau said, turn out to be rationalisation.”