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First Person: Joshua Oppenheimer On How ‘The Act of Killing’ Holds A Dark Mirror Up To Us All

First Person: Joshua Oppenheimer On How 'The Act of Killing' Holds A Dark Mirror Up To Us All

Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed debut feature “The Act of Killing” documents the mass killings of Indonesians 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 Robert De Niro, taking cues from Quentin 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.

Below in an exclusive first person for Indiewire, Oppenheimer shares his reasons for making the film, which opens this Friday, and explains how the doc implies that we too are perpetrators.


“The Act of Killing” holds a dark mirror up to men who have participated in crimes against humanity, and to a regime of fear, corruption and impunity that these men have built atop a mountain of corpses.

But although the situation we see in “The Act of Killing” may be shocking, it is not extraordinary. It is not some upside-down moral universe, distant from our own. Rather, it is the dark underbelly of our reality: we depend on the suffering of others for our everyday survival.

Every article of clothing that touches our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it. Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place where there has been political violence, where the perpetrators have won and are still in power, and where, in their victory, they have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the women and men who make everything we buy are unable to get the human cost of their work incorporated into the price tag we pay.

In that sense, we depend for our daily living on the reality you see in “The Act of Killing.” We depend on men like Anwar and his friends. We are guests at their cannibalistic feast. We may not be as close to the slaughter, but we are at the table.

“The Act of Killing,” then, holds a dark mirror up to us all, for we, too, are perpetrators.

Just as the men in the film are damaged by what they have done – the main character, Anwar, is ravaged by it, while the others are revealed to be mere empty shells – I think that we, too, are damaged by depending on the suffering of others. We have only one chance to live, and it is more than a pity that we must do so upon the suffering of others. In reaction, I think, we withdraw from the world into escapist fantasies. We withdraw from each other into self-absorption, pining for luxuries, loneliness…

I began this journey nearly a decade ago, filming with survivors of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide. We became close. They became my second family. I learned Indonesian. But every time we would film together, the military would stop us. It was frightening for the survivors, who were still subject to a regime of political apartheid that designated them as “unclean”, denying them and their children education, jobs, even the right to marry who they choose.

One of the survivors suggested I film the perpetrators. “They will boast,” she explained. “Film their boasting, and viewers will see why we are so afraid, as well as the nature of the regime in which we live.”

Over a two year period, I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across North Sumatra’s oil palm and rubber plantations, and up the chain of command to the city of Medan, and beyond to army generals in Jakarta. Anwar, the protagonist of “The Act of Killing,” was the 41st death squad leader I filmed.

All of the perpetrators were boastful, and feared by their neighbours. I would introduce myself, and ask what they had done for a living. They would reply with graphic stories of killing.

They would invite me to the places where they had killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations. Afterwards, they’d lament that they hadn’t brought a machete as a prop, or a friend to play the victim.

I felt as though I had wandered into Germany, 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power. Ageing SS officers were boasting about their glory days—both to reassure themselves that what they had done was right, and to keep everybody around them too afraid to challenge this assertion.

I knew I had a responsibility to explore and expose this situation as fully as possible– a situation at once shocking yet tragically commonplace. I knew I would dedicate however many years it required.

Why were they boasting? How did they want their society to see them? How did they see themselves?

In search of answers, I explained openly my intentions. “You participated in one of the biggest killings in human history,” I’d say. “Your society is based on it. Your life is shaped by it. I want to understand what it means to you and to your society. You want to show me what you did. So show me what you did, in whatever way you wish. I will combine your re-enactments with the process of creating them, and create a new form of documentary: a documentary of the imagination, a documentary that will show what these events mean to you and your society, how you want to be seen, and how you see yourself.”

My method is not an elaborate lure to get perpetrators to open up. Rather, it was a response to their openness, a way of understanding the nature of their openness, and its consequences for a whole society. (It is a method, also, of making the invisible visible, of putting humanity through a prism, revealing the half-remembered, second-hand, third-rate fantasies by which we create ourselves, and our world.)

Not once did I suspend my moral judgment of the crimes I was documenting. Yet I refused to condemn Anwar as a human being, for if I did so, it would only be to reassure myself that I am better than him, different from him. As much as I would hope that I would not kill hundreds of people for power and money, I am lucky never to have to find out.

I do not know how to make an honest film about another human being if I do not become close to them. But when you are intimate, you are vulnerable. Going so deep with Anwar into the nightmare of horror and self-deception, forcing myself to be as intimate with him as possible, allowing myself to be haunted and overwhelmed, and never to flinch – this gave me nightmares. Afraid of the nightmares, I couldn’t sleep. The insomnia went on for about a year.

It was bearable because of the support and, indeed, love of my anonymous Indonesian collaborators, and especially my anonymous co-director. They helped me through this very dark journey, and brightened the way with their laughter.

I made “The Act of Killing” on behalf of—and in collaboration with—friends whose loved ones were murdered, and broader the Indonesian human rights community. The most important goal was to expose a regime founded on the celebration of crimes against humanity, the moral and cultural rot that attends a normality based on terror and lies.

“The Act of Killing” is helping transform the way Indonesians are talking about their past—and present. In response to the film, the mainstream Indonesian media now publishes, for the first time in 47 years, serious investigative pieces about the genocide, and about the role of gangsters in politics. According to a member of Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, perpetrators no longer boast about crimes against humanity. As of April, the film had screened over 500 times, in 95 cities. It is among the most talked about works of culture in modern Indonesia.

As an exposé, the film was intended for Indonesians themselves. And it is not an exposé of hitherto unknown facts. Instead, like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the film exposes painful truths that Indonesians (and perhaps all of us) have long known, but been too afraid to articulate. In doing so, the film has helped open a space for Indonesians to address these truths, openly and without fear.

[Bryce J. Renninger contributed to the intro.]

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