Joshua Oppenheimer.
Joshua Oppenheimer.

Recruiting Werner Herzog and Errol Morris to become executive producers for your debut feature is quite the feat.  Joshua Oppenheimer, who has been creating videos documenting political violence for several years now, has made quite the splash with his new film "The Act of Killing," which has premiered this month at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.

"The Act of Killing" documents the mass killings of Indonesia following the CIA-funded military overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965.  A band of self-proclaimed gangsters went from selling movie tickets on the black market to suppressing communist sentiment by killing known communists in the mass killings of over one million Indonesians.

When Oppenheimer's cameras join the killers, they are, led by their leader Anwar Congo, enacting their cinephile fantasies by acting in their own film in which they recreate the scenes of their murders.  Doing their best de Niro, taking cues from Tarantino, the killers relish in their roles as actors.  And in Indonesia, they are just as famous as the men they seek to emulate.  The killers, now decades later, are bona fide celebrities whose actions are seen as a source of national pride.

To see "The Act of Killing" is to be thrown into the rare, disorienting position of trying to understand the actions of mass murderers.  In a sense, as Oppenheimer discussed in our conversation, the film is trying to probe the depths of someone able to stand by a corpse and smile, with the V for Victory sign.  The recreations of these killings are much like the Abu Ghraib photos that provoked Errol Morris to make "Standard Operating Procedure."  And like "Standard Operating Procedure," "The Act of Killing" interrogates the desensitization of violence.

When Indiewire sat down with Oppenheimer, he explained why doing that in this film was not only ethical but necessary.

How did you know the story of these killers was going to be a film?

I guess I knew Anwar was going to be the main character, and in that sense, I think that's when I realized I was making "The Act of Killing." I was on the roof with him.  He showed me how he killed with such swagger.  He plays the victim without being particularly affected by it.  And then he stands up and he says there's a little pain here that [over time] he tried to forget by drinking.  Then he showed me the cha cha, and what a great dancer he was!

All within a short amount of time?

Within an hour, going from playing the victim to doing the cha cha, and he doesn't even take the wire [the weapon used to decapitate victims] off his neck.  There was no discomfort with the wire around his neck, it was almost like the wire was a necklace he was used to wearing.  That was a very very very unforgettable and intriguing and disturbing detail, and I think that is where the film began.

Everyone is coming into this film is there for a different reason.  What was motivating you as you continued to shoot the film?

I came to the film in solidarity and collaboration with the survivors.  Of course, I'm not a person who would want to make a film to glorify mass killing.  I had been working with a community of survivors who had lost their relatives and were too scared to talk about it.  So it was very difficult -- I remember after that scene where Anwar does the dancing on the roof, I took him back to his house and immediately broke down.  I was in tears and upset in the car after we dropped him off.

How did you convince the men to participate in the film?

The recreation of a murder in "The Act of Killing"
The recreation of a murder in "The Act of Killing"

It was very easy to win these men's trust because all I had to do was show up as an American filmmaker and they assume I make the kind of movies they love.  They have no notion of documentary.  They assume that as an American I'm on their side.  They assume that because the Americans supported this during the time and helped pay for the killings. Anwar and his men were getting advice and reporting to the American consul during the killings.  Ever since, too, the US supported the military dictatorship that was there and now supports the so-called reformed Indonesia.  We can see from the film just how reformed it is.  All I had to do was be how you and I would be with each other:  be nice, be kind, be caring when someone was going through a hard time, and repress. 

You took a bold approach to this topic.  Why did you want to do something different with this film?

In documentary filmmaking, there's a tradition of telling stories about victims.  We often do that from a very patronizing place, but mostly we do it from a very selfish place, to reassure ourselves that our lives are in sympathy and solidarity with the victims.  Whereas, in fact, the main editor of the film, and that's why I asked him to edit the film, he said, "You know, Josh, it's very refreshing to see a film about perpetrators, because we're much closer to perpetrators than victims.  All of us."  And that's the message of the film.  [Another killer] Adi has these scenes where he suspects that this film is going to make him look bad.  He says "Drag me to the Hague! Fine! I can be famous!"  When you've killed so many people, you've experienced the living death that that must entail.  When you've killed so many people, to still have the pathetic desire for fame because you've been dragged to the Hague as a war criminal, which won't happen to him and he knows it, that's tragic.  And then the deputy minister is totally confused as he's watching them shoot one of the scenes.  He comes in and says this is gonna make us look bad, just like Adi does, but then he realizes that looking bad is the source of his power.  And so, he turns 180 degrees and says keep this, this is good.

The interview with Oppenheimer continues on page 2.