Back to IndieWire

‘Act of Killing’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer on How The Oscars Gave The Film ‘A Second Life’

'Act of Killing' Director Joshua Oppenheimer on How The Oscars Gave The Film 'A Second Life'

This is a first person by Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing.”

I am always a little surprised when anyone sees anything I make, so being nominated for the Oscar is beyond amazing — what a tremendous honor.

The nomination has given the film a second life in the US.  The new round of screenings has been very moving. After them, people often tell me they were afraid to watch the film because they’d heard it was graphically violent, or that survivors play themselves in re-enactments. But they tell me they’re glad they came, because neither of those things are true: the film is not violent, and everybody appearing in the re-enactments are perpetrators, paramilitary leaders, and their immediate family members – that is, there are no survivors in the dramatizations.  And they recognize that while the film is emotionally impactful, it is not viscerally impactful or violent.

The nomination has also raised the level of debate in Indonesia. This is particularly important for me, since we made this film in collaboration with a network of genocide survivors and human rights activists. In fact, the project began as a film about survivors, not perpetrators: survivors asked me to make a film with them about why they are afraid – that is, a film about what it’s like for them to live with former death squad leaders all around them, still in positions of power — a film about what it’s like for them to live with the threat that this could happen again at any time. This was in early 2003, but the Army, which is stationed in every village in Indonesia, found out what we were doing and threatened the survivors not to participate in the film. The survivors urged me, “Before you give up and go home, try to film the perpetrators. They may tell you how they killed our relatives.” I did not know if it was safe to approach the killers, but when I did I found all of them to be boastful, immediately recounting the grizzly details of the killings, often with smiles on their faces, in front of their families,  even their small grandchildren.  In this contrast between survivors who forced into silence, and perpetrators boastfully recounting stories far more incriminating than anything the survivors could have told, I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.

When I showed this material back to those survivors who wanted to see it, and to the broader Indonesian human rights community, everybody said, more or less: “You are on to something terribly important. Keep filming the perpetrators, because anybody who sees this will be forced to acknowledge the rotten heart of the regime the killers have built.” From that point on, we felt entrusted by the survivors and human rights community to do a work that they could not safely do themselves: I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find across North Sumatra, working from death squad to death squad up the chain of command, from the countryside to the city. Everybody was boastful, everybody would invite me to the places they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. Throughout those two years, and throughout the subsequent filming of “The Act of Killing,” I was in constant dialogue and collaboration with the survivors and human rights community. Anwar Congo, the film’s main character, was the 41st perpetrator I filmed.

People may assume “The Act of Killing” is a historical documentary about what happened in 1965. But our purpose was to expose a present-day regime of fear for what it is. In that sense, the film is not a historical narrative, but a film about history, about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt and color the present. And as such, it is was made, in collaboration with much of the Indonesian human rights community, as an intervention in the present.

The film has screened thousands of times in Indonesia, and is available there online (without subtitles). This has helped catalyze a transformation in how Indonesia understands its past. The media and public alike are now able, for the first time without fear, to investigate the genocide as a genocide – and to debate the links between the moral catastrophe of the killings and the moral catastrophe of the present-day regime built by (and still presided over) by the killers.

For a long time, the Indonesian government ignored the film, hoping it would go away. When the film was nominated for an Academy Award, the Indonesian president finally made an official statement (even though the President’s office claimed that he had not seen the film.) The President’s spokesman acknowledged that the 1965 genocide was a crime against humanity, and that Indonesia needs reconciliation — but in their own time. While this was not an embrace of the film, it was incredible, because it represents an about-face for the government: until then, they had maintained that the killings were something to be celebrated: heroic and glorious.

In a few months, Indonesians will go to the polls to choose their next president. With leading candidates personally responsible for crimes against humanity, and glorifying a history of genocide to build a climate of fear, there is a very real risk that the country will backslide toward military dictatorship. The nomination has put issues of impunity that the film raises on the front pages of Indonesian newspapers — at a time when Indonesians must urgently debate how impunity for mass murder has led to a moral vacuum of fear, corruption, and thuggery.

The Presidential spokesman also argued that the film is made by foreigners, and makes Indonesia look bad. Much of the Indonesian media responded angrily to this argument, reminding the public that “The Act of Killing” would not exist without an anonymous Indonesian crew – including an anonymous Indonesian co-director. These are women and men who gave eight years of their lives to make this film, risking their safety, knowing that unless there is real political change in Indonesia, they could not take credit for their work. (I do dream of the day when enough has changed in Indonesia that we can re-master the film with the names of my Indonesian crew in the credits.)

In one scene in the film, death squad veteran Adi Zulkadry argues that I am a hypocrite for accusing him of war crimes. After all, the US helped orchestrate the genocide. There is some truth to what what Adi says: we must look at ourselves, too. Indeed, it has been moving to witness audiences across the US and the world discover, through moments of identification with Anwar Congo, that we are all closer to perpetrators than we like to believe. The United Kingdom and United States did help engineer the genocide, and for decades enthusiastically supported the military dictatorship that came to power through the genocide. We cannot have an ethical or constructive relationship with Indonesia (or so many other countries across the global south), until we acknowledge the crimes of the past, and our collective role in supporting and participating in those crimes.

The nomination gave us an opportunity to make this point on Capitol Hill. A few days ago, we screened the film at the Library of Congress for senators, members of congress and their staff. The screening was introduced by Senator Tom Udall of the Foreign Relations Committee, and afterwards he asked how the US was involved in these atrocities, and how we continue to support the Indonesian regime. Visibly moved, he told the Jakarta Post that something must be done.

The awards season has, above all, been about deepening the debate, both inside Indonesia and beyond. We still hope that the Indonesian government will finally acknowledge the 1965 genocide — and the present-day regime of fear built upon it — as a moral catastrophe. And we hope that the renewed attention to the film will encourage ordinary Indonesians to demand that their leaders be held accountable for their crimes – be they genocide, corruption, or the use of thugs to do their dirty work. And we hope that it will inspire all Indonesians to work together for truth, justice, and reconciliation.

As my Anonymous crew wrote on the day “The Act of Killing” was nominated for an Oscar:

The film is a call to remember everything that has been forgotten or hidden over the course of humanity’s long and dark history. The truth has not yet been brought to light, justice has not yet been served, an apology has not yet been uttered, victims have not yet been rehabilitated (let alone compensated). Discrimination against survivors continues. An official history that remains silent on the atrocities (yet glorifies the extermination of the communists in general terms), is still taught to our children. The government continues to anoint architects of the genocide as national heroes. All this to keep people paralysed by fear, so that ordinary Indonesians dare not hold them accountable for wanton corruption. We hope this nomination will remind us — and all human beings everywhere — always to fight against forgetting.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox