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‘Act of Killing’ Director on Filming His Shocking Documentary: It Gave Me Nightmares

Joshua Oppenheimer talks with TheWrap about death threats and government-sanctioned killings in Indonesia nearly 50 years ago


Forget about “The Conjuring”: no movie has brought more true horror to the screen this year than the documentary “The Act of Killing,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday after bowing in New York last week.

In director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film, Indonesian gangsters recreate government sanctioned¬† killings of as many as 1 million communists, left-wingers, union workers and others nearly 50 years ago. And they do it in the style of their favorite films.

Kristy Sparrow/Getty ImagesSurreal, horrifying and utterly unlike any other film on this kind of subject, the Drafthouse Films release features harrowing film-noir sequences in which the gangsters portray their own victims as they reenact the killings, as well as bizarrely lavish musical numbers in which the dead thank their killers. The killers have openly bragged about their deeds for decades, but the film shows a few of them grappling with the memory – notably Anwar Congo, head of a group of Northern Sumatra gangsters obsessed with the movies, who suddenly begins retching, gagging and shaking with the dry heaves when he returns to the rooftop where he’d strangled hundreds.

TheWrap wrote about the film after it premiered at Toronto last September, when Oppenheimer (above) said he’d been approached before a screening by two men from the Indonesian embassy who’d warned him, “We’re following this film very closely.”

Also read: Horrifying Toronto Doc ‘Act of Killing’ Restages Mass Killing as Twisted Entertainment

Since then, “The Act of Killing,” executive produced by iconic documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, has been shown in private screenings there. Oppenheimer talked with TheWrap about the death threats he has received and the ongoing need to protect the identify of people in the film, lest they face reprisals in a country where for 47 years the government has either officially denied that the massacre took place, or claimed it was justified.

When we spoke in Toronto last September, you didn’t know how you were going to release the film in Indonesia.
We knew that if we just submitted it to the censors and it was banned, then it would become a crime to screen it. And that would become an excuse for the [government-sanctioned] paramilitary group or the army to attack screenings with impunity. But once it became a big news story during Toronto, we realized that we needed to get the media to see the film. So we started screening right after Toronto. We told everybody, “Why don’t you hold screenings, but do it by invitation?” On the 10th of December last year, which was International Human Rights Day, there were 50 screenings in 30 cities, ranging in size from 30 people to 600 people. By the first of April, there had been more than 500 screenings in 95 cities.

The Act of KillingWhat has the reaction been?
We held screenings for Indonesia’s leading news publishers, producers, editors, filmmakers, historians, educators, human rights advocates, artists, writers, survivors’ groups all through the autumn, and everybody really loved the film. But the most powerful reaction was from the editors of Indonesia’s leading news magazine, Tempo. They decided that the film was so important for them that they had to break what had been a decades-long silence about the killings.

They sent dozens of journalists around the country to show that “The Act of Killing” was a repeatable experience, that they could find men who would boast about what they had done. They gathered something like 500 or 600 pages of boastful testimony from perpetrators, edited it down to 75 pages and gathered another 25 pages of material about the film. And that really set the tone for the mainstream Indonesian media to say, “We need to talk about this.”

The film has really come to Indonesia like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, which is how I intended it. That’s been the most wonderful thing – pointing at the king and saying, “Look, the king is naked.” Everybody knew it and had been too afraid to say it, but now that it’s been said so undeniably, there’s no going back. The moral consensus around these events has really shifted.

I don’t think the killings are particularly well-known in the United States, but the film suggests that the U.S., which was desperate to halt the spread of communism in Asia at the time, was complicit in what happened.
The U.S. was absolutely complicit. The U.S. provided money, provided weapons, provided lists of people they wanted dead. They encouraged the army to kill everybody on the left, or put everybody on the left in political prisons as a way of making sure that the whole left was annihilated.

But I had a decision facing me when I made the film. If I were to go into that history, it would inevitably become a historical film, not a film in which the audience is immersed in the now, in the present, in the world of these men. The most important thing was that we don’t have distance from them, that we don’t see them as exhibits in a framework given to us by experts or voiceover or historical narration.

All I can hope for is that this film opens a space for people to remember what happened, to investigate what happened, to make other films, to write. So it says at the beginning that America was complicit, but I don’t go into the details.

When you started filming the killers, I would guess that you had no idea they would lead you into this bizarre world of reenactments.
No. I started with a community of survivors, and when it became too dangerous to film with the survivors, they told me to continue to film with the perpetrators. I was hesitant, because my loyalties were with the survivors. But I started filming with the perpetrators and got this boasting, and my questions gradually shifted from “What happened then?” to “What’s going on now that these men would want to be seen this way?”

They were boasting and showing off and doing these simple demonstrations of what they had done. And I would say, “You want to show me what you’ve done? Show me in whatever way you want. I’ll film the process, I’ll film the re-enactments, as a way of understanding what these events mean to you and your society.” And then I met Anwar (below), and his pain was somehow closer to the surface.

The Act of KillingThat pain really emerged when we see him watching the re-enactments of his killings that you had filmed.
Yeah. The second or third day I filmed Anwar, he watched himself on that roof [where he demonstrated how he’d strangled people], and he looked very disturbed. But what did he do with that feeling?¬† He didn’t dare say, “This is wrong,” because he’s desperately clung to the lie that it was good and justified, so that he doesn’t have to look in the mirror and see a mass murderer. So he looked really disturbed, but he said, “It’s my trousers. It’s my hair.” He placed it onto something really trivial. And so began this process of embellishment, the motor of which from the very beginning was actually him running away from his conscience.

Maybe it was inevitable that if I followed that process, those reenactments would become the prism through which he recognized his broken self. But that was not my motive. So you’re exactly right, I didn’t know where it was going. And if I did, if I was able to anticipate I was going to bring him to some moment of remorse, I think the film would have been sentimental, and also obscene. Because in the face of the death of a million people, with the perpetrators still in power, it cannot be the goal to get one man to feel regret.

When you were filming, how hard was it to stifle a sense of horror or outrage?
You know, it wasn’t so hard. I learned from the very beginning to be quiet and to hold myself back, so that I would be able to document what had happened. I always had to see them as human beings. I don’t think I can make an honest film about somebody else if I’m not close to that person. And to be close, you have to be vulnerable.

There were sections of the film that really haunted me, that gave me nightmares. I would wake up and I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night or the next night at all. I would finally crash the night after that, and then it would start again. That went on for eight months. There were moments when I just felt hatred or total exhaustion, and those two things usually went together. And then I would stop, I would rest for a couple of days and I would come back.

I insisted that the moment I start seeing this man as a monster or a psychopath or pure evil, what I’m really doing is reassuring myself that I’m not like that, and that we’re all different from that. And then I lose the possibility of understanding the most fundamental question here, which is, “How do we human beings do this to each other?”

Has Anwar seen the film?
For a long time he hadn’t wanted to see it, but then he found himself the center of a big news story in Indonesia and he wanted to see it. I couldn’t go to Indonesia, and I didn’t think I could bring him out safely, because he’s now in the news for having killed all these people. And so with the help of an Al Jazeera journalist, we flew him to Jakarta, put him in a hotel where there was great internet, and I was with him by Skype throughout the screening.

He saw the film and gosh, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. At the end he sat there in silence for a very long time, tearful. He went to the bathroom, he pulled himself together, he came back and then he said, “This film shows what it’s like to be me.”

One of my big fears was that he might be under pressure to denounce the film. I said, “Look, you can denounce the film if you have to.” But he hasn’t. And he hasn’t been blamed by the paramilitary group. They just blame me.

What form does that blame take?
I get a lot of threats from them. The worst one was the other day, when they sent me a message via Facebook saying, “Look forward to doing something very unusual with your head.” That wasn’t nice.