Mixing the real and the surreal in “The Act of Killing”

In time for its presentation as the Copenhangen International Documentary Film Festival's opening film, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (pictured) tells realscreen about his "observational documentary of the imagination."
October 30, 2012

Documentaries about large-scale human atrocities typically unfold through the perspective of the “good guys” embarking on a process of truth and reconciliation to bring the perpetrators to justice. But what if the “bad guys” won and their story became the prevailing truth?

That is the situation that faced the makers of The Act of Killing, a documentary that takes an unusual approach to a horrific and often overlooked event in recent history: the slaughter of more than one million Indonesians deemed Communists following a military coup in 1965. The film follows a group of former death squad leaders living in Northern Sumatra as they produce and star in a macabre fantasy genre film about the killings, which are celebrated today as acts of patriotism by Indonesia’s political establishment.

The film primarily follows Anwar Congo, an admitted mass killer and founder of a powerful right-wing paramilitary organization who has become a celebrity in Indonesia after The Act of Killing screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month, where it was met with glowing appraisals from critics and silence from Indonesian authorities.

“I was trying to do something that I’ve not quite seen done,” the film’s co-director Joshua Oppenheimer (pictured), told realscreen in an interview during TIFF. “And I was trying to do it because I felt that’s really where the cinema that I most wanted to see ought to lie.”

By filming Anwar and his friends making the film, the director attempted to create what he calls “an observational documentary of the imagination.” The surreal, dream-like process of making the movie unexpectedly causes Anwar to grapple with his violent past and the audience is shown how deeply fear, corruption and jaw-dropping impunity permeates the country’s political culture.

“Let them play themselves and be exactly what they want to be and see what cracks and fissures in their own identity emerge,” the 37-year-old explains.

Born in Austin, Texas and based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Oppenheimer co-directed the film with Christine Cynn, with whom he collaborated on the 2003 doc The Globalization Tapes, and with an Indonesian who, like the Indonesian crew, is credited as anonymous for fear of reprisals. For security reasons, Oppenheimer declines to reveal when and where the doc will premiere in Indonesia.

Seven years in the making, the film first secured financing through the Danish Film Institute after Oppenheimer gave a presentation at CPH:DOX in 2007. That filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers during the two-year editing phase is not a surprise: the film touches on themes of imagination, memory and storytelling that parallels their work, especially Morris’ 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure about the torture of suspected terrorism suspects in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

The producers have since secured broadcast deals in several European territories and the film will get a theatrical run in Denmark. It debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, had its official premiere at TIFF, and will open the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival tonight (October 30).

The day after the film debuted at TIFF, realscreen sat down with Oppenheimer to talk about making The Act of Killing.

What has been the reaction to The Act of Killing in Indonesia?

So far the discussion in Indonesia’s been very constructive and very good. There’s a sense that this film was really dealing with the most important historical moment in Indonesian history and its arrival is one of the more important historical moments in Indonesian history. I’m nervous of course because I have a very long now personal connection to Anwar. We went through a great big experience making the film; I worry about how he copes with the press suddenly becoming interested in him. And of course I’m concerned about the safety of anyone who’s trying to distribute the film.

What impact do you hope the film will ultimately have on Indonesian audiences?

The film’s dealing with two things in parallel, really. It’s dealing with what happened in the genocide; that’s actually secondary. The real thing the film’s addressing is the political culture of impunity that’s been built on the genocide and then the slippage from impunity into open celebration, and even joy, and that’s an allegory for corruption and the charade that goes by the name of Indonesian democracy at the moment. It’s also an allegory that happened in the United States around torture. It’s an allegory for how all human societies are based in some point in their histories on terror and violence and the normalities built upon that.

In Indonesia what we can hope for is that this will open a space for a radical reimagining of the country’s present by understanding how this traumatic past has been kept alive in the present both as an instrument of fear to keep people afraid and also keep them silenced.  I hope it will lead to a space to refute and expose for what it is the threatening and disturbing celebration of mass killing that persists and circulates in Indonesia today.

Why did you decide to film the perpetrators making a movie about the killings?

I’m very interested in how we imagine ourselves and how we imagine each other. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about each other, about the world; how our reality is constructed from narrative and through storytelling and through second-hand, third-rate, recycled stories and myths. In The Act of Killing, you see the way a genocide and its aftermath is perpetuated through these stories. So it seems to me that if you’re going to bring a camera and get in close to people, why not create whatever reality you can with those people that are most insightful to the questions you are trying to address?

Giving [the perpetrators] a space to create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished was a way of creating conditions for shooting an observational documentary of the imagination, instead of an observational documentary of whatever things these people do in their everyday life.

Do you think this film could directly spark violence or effect political strife in Indonesia?

The only party in Indonesia that could get violent in response to this film is the Pancasila Youth [paramilitary group] and I think that would be directed at people who helped make the film –and that’s why they’re anonymous – or at me –and that’s why I don’t think I can go to Indonesia any time soon – or the people trying to screen the film in Indonesia. We have a whole program for trying to get the film out in Indonesia, which is about protecting the safety of the people who try and do it.

What’s your relationship with Anwar now?

I’ve told him what the film is about and he says he understands. He’s OK with it. We’ve been talking every night for the last week since Telluride so he knows it’s come out here. Journalists have been coming to him; I think that’s been a bit stressful for him. But they’re not being hostile; they’re just coming to see what he has to say about the film. If he sees the film I’ve also told him he can have a DVD of the film, but I can’t give him a DVD until it’s just about to come out in Indonesia because if the paramilitary group has a copy of the film before it comes out that can make it much harder to hold those first screenings of the film and for me that has to be my first priority.

What was the challenge in editing the film?

The most difficult thing was walking this tightrope between getting inside [Anwar], between attraction and repulsion. We had to cut several versions of this film which is common in documentary: there’s a theatrical version, a TV version, and with each one you’re walking a tightrope and to try to change your course you have to walk the tightrope all over again. So it was more than just cut-downs; it was really hard each time.

Indonesian society is known for a culture of ‘double-speak.’ How did that affect your ability to make this documentary?

In some ways it made it easy. It’s what made it possible because confrontation doesn’t work in Indonesia. If you have a confrontation, everyone just goes home. The fact that I came in non-confrontationally was good and made it possible for the whole thing to proceed. Then of course there are layers upon layers of euphemism. All I had to say is I’m interested in the struggle against the Communists in 1965 and for us we hear genocide and for them they hear heroism. I didn’t even have to say I wanted to glorify what you do.

I just used the word perjuangan, which means “struggle” and I could even use the word pemusnahan which means “extermination.” When we hear “extermination,” we think the shoah. We think holocaust, but there you say “extermination” and it’s great. It’s what you see on TV. So I was able to speak quite plainly about things and take advantage of this whole misuse of words.

It’s what [political theorist] Hannah Arendt talks about in Eichmann in Jerusalem: Hitler talking about the Holocaust with “winged words” that made it possible to not only talk about the most unspeakable things, but to imagine things that should be unimaginable. That was the rabbit hole through which I could slip to make this film.

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