Haunting documentary shines light on death squads

1/12/2014
BY KIRK BAIRD BLADE
STAFF WRITER
A scene from the documentary,
A scene from the documentary, "The Act of Killing."

The Act of Killing is a gut-punch of a documentary about a group of Indonesian gangsters hired to act as death squads during their country’s revolt of 1965 in which millions were executed. In the film, these killers not only talk about their sanctioned mass killings, they provide macabre demonstrations of how they did it. More than four decades later, these men remain in power.

“Normally in film -- documentaries in particular -- when we see perpetrators, they normally deny what they have done or they apologize for it,” said The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer in a recent phone interview while on vacation in Alaska. “That’s because by the time they’re filmed as perpetrators they've already been removed from power and have been forced by some imperfect extent to acknowledge that what they’ve done is wrong,” he said. “Here we have a situation where it’s as if the Nazis had won and remain in power and they’re boastful.”

The moral center of the film is an 80-something hired killer named Anwar Congo, who proves to be far more emotionally complex than his bloody history would suggest. Unlike many of his fellow executioners, he is more demonstrably haunted by his actions, and demonstrating his atrocities for the film's camera only seems to stir up that long-repressed guilt.

The Act of Killing is a documentary not easily forgotten. It was just released on Blu-ray-DVD and is also available on iTunes. It’s also on the short list for Academy Award voters to consider for Best Documentary. The Blade recently spoke with Oppenheimer about his powerful work.

Q: What are the typical reactions of audiences to your film?

A: I think people all over the world and especially in Indonesia have sort of allowed themselves to see a small part of themselves in Anwar at least once in the movie and for some people throughout most of the movie. The whole moral paradigm that underpins almost all the stories we tell and almost all the movies we make that namely the world is divided into good guys and bad guys comes crashing down.

The most profound, fortuitous, and painful discovery of the film is that so much of our evil and what we call sadism is bound up with our morality. It’s what animates the whole film; the boasting of mass killing and the growing remorse and growing trauma that Anwar feels about the mass killing are two sides of the same coin.

Q: How was it for you to be so close to these killers?

A: People sometimes in trying, I think, [to] fundamentally trying distance themselves from these men have said how can you humanize these men? And the answer is very, very simple. They are human. Period. They’ve made terrible choices. And we can want to make a film about such men and their deeds were one with a distance films anyone of them for an hour gets an hour’s worth of criminal confession and condemns them …. You could shoot such a film in one hour. And you can reassure yourself that these men are awful and that I’m not like them. But such an approach would merely reassure us that we’re not like them and while I would hope that I would not make the same terrible decisions of Anwar ... I know that I’m extremely lucky never to have to find out.

Joshua Oppenheimer.
Joshua Oppenheimer.

Q: How was it for you to witness these reenactments and what was going through your mind? Did your opinion evolve as the filming went on?

A: I think I started from the place of distance and outrage that every viewer starts from when they see this film. When they see Anwar dancing on the roof at the beginning, it’s such an outrage. He’s dancing in the place where he’s killed hundreds of people. I started from that same place of outrage. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. Every single one of them was boastful, most of them would invite me to the places where they killed and launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. I spent two years filming them like that before I met Anwar. And the first one I filmed was living across the street from me in this little plantation village where I made a film in 2001 and 2002. After I filmed him demonstrating and boasting how he drowned several hundred plantation workers and union members in front of his granddaughter with a smile on his face, I went back to my house mortified, wanting nothing more but to escape reality, and certainly not wanting anything more to do with this man. A few minutes later his wife knocked on the door with a plate of fried bananas as a gift. I accepted the gift politely but I tried to get rid of her as quickly as possible but politely. She went home and I threw the bananas away, and that reaction really disturbed me. I realized that this woman had come over with a gift, a gesture of kindness, and she may not have even been married to her husband in 1965, and I’m treating her and her food, her humanity as something radically other, something totally tainted. And I felt that in that position, it’s a dishonest position, and it’s a position that has within it the seeds of repetition, treating a whole class of people as other. And I realized that I was taking that position because I was too disturbed to contemplate the alternative, mainly that these are human beings that live across the street from me, and I determined that I wouldn’t do that again.

Q: Has Anwar seen the film?

A: Anwar has seen the film and stands by the film. [He] was very moved by it. He said this film shows what it's like to be [him]. He was tearful, he pulled himself together, and then he said I'm relieved to finally show what these things mean and not just what I did. ... And the film, of course, has been seen most importantly by Indonesia as a nation and it has transformed the way the media and the country talk about it past. Perpetrators no longer boast in Indonesia and the media now reports on the genocide as a crime against humanity.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.