Austin, Texas-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent years researching one of the most horrific genocides in history. He has emerged from the process with a festival-favorite documentary — one spiked with surreal humor and musical numbers.
To make The Act of Killing, which opened Friday, August 9, at the Alamo Drafthouse, Oppenheimer and his collaborators put retired paramilitary Indonesian gangsters on camera. Starting in 1965, the criminals' roles in the Indonesian underworld went from scalping movie tickets to murdering thousands of people. Their victims were suspected communists or had been targeted simply for being ethnic Chinese. Veteran documentarians Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss) and Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), the film's executive producers, saw an early cut of the movie and agreed to advise Oppenheimer on how to assemble and promote his work.
What makes The Act of Killing grimly funny and genuinely shocking is that its subjects recount their own crimes with evident glee, even participating in re-enactments set up as mob movies or musical comedies. The result examines the slaughter of 1 million–2 million people with an approach that's somehow more disturbing than a straightforward documentary might have been.
Speaking by phone, Oppenheimer explains why this skewed report enables viewers to see the horror more clearly, especially in Indonesia.
The Pitch: When you first decided to make a movie about genocide, did you ever think that it would become a musical?
Oppenheimer: No. [Laughs.] Certainly not. When I first began this project, it was in cooperation with a community of survivors. In fact, you could say I made the entire film with a community of survivors.
When word got out that we were looking into the 1965–66 genocide, the Indonesian military would come and stop us every time we started to film together. Meanwhile, the survivors would send me on these painful missions to meet with neighbors who they thought were perpetrators and might be able to shed light on how their loved ones had died. When I confronted the fact that the survivors were terrorized into silence by the regime and that the perpetrators were boasting about what they had done, I felt that I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find that the Nazis were still in power.
Anwar Congo, the main character in The Act of Killing, was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. When I met him, I imagined creating these simple re-enactments of many perpetrators from across the region. Anwar, because he was one of the first movie-theater [ticket-scalping] gangsters in this film, started to propose these more and more surreal embellishments inspired by his favorite genres — I think because he was, in fact, trying to run away from his pain. He was trying to deny the moral meaning of what he has done by making his re-enactments.
As a viewer, I was deeply disturbed by the scenes where you have this man, who has oceans of blood on his hands, playing with his grandchildren. You don't usually think of someone who has committed genocide as a grandpa.
But almost everyone who has committed genocide and isn't in jail or hasn't been defeated in a war, and is therefore killed, is a grandpa.
Were you surprised at how comical some of these re-enactments got?
There are two types of humor in this film. I think there's humor where the men in the film are very open with who they are. Whenever I'm filming anybody, I look for people who are going to be open.
Anwar, I think, had a gift in casting. Without my asking, he always chose people who were similarly open. He chose Herman Koto and dressed him up in drag to play a number of roles.
There's a scene where they're trying on hats. Anwar decides that what's wrong with the re-enactments is not what's really wrong. When he sees the first re-enactment, he's really disturbed. Of course, he's disturbed by what he did on the roof. But rather than give voice to that — because he's never been forced to admit what he's done and was wrong — instead, he focuses on these embellishments: a change of costume, a change of hair color, a change of location, a change of genre.
We see them trying on new costumes. We see them, and they're delighted by the hats. Herman chooses a bright-pink cowboy hat for Anwar and says this is the kind of hat a gangster should wear. Anwar takes it, and you're wondering: What gangster movie has Herman watched? And we love them for this openness and that Anwar's not too macho to wear the bright-pink cowboy hat. ... And then in the very next minute, Anwar tells a horrible story and starts to re-enact it. In that moment, humor is very unusual in its relation to violence in movies. It draws us into the violence. It draws us in as the film turns dark.
There's another type of humor that's particularly kind of resonant in Indonesia, where the film has totally transformed the way that people have been talking about the past. There's a kind of humor where the scenes become more and more surreal and more and more grotesque and more and more absurd, culminating in the scene at the waterfall, where Anwar dramatizes his vision of heaven. He finds himself in heaven surrounded by dancing girls, and his victims waiting for him with a medal and to thank him for killing them. It's like the punch line for an entire regime. It's an unmasking of the hypocrisy and all the moral rot that lies in the heart of a whole regime built on terror and lies and mass graves.
What drew you to the story of Indonesia's genocide?
When I say I started this film with a community of survivors, it started with a community of plantation workers. I was documenting the abuse they face at the hands of a Belgian-owned palm-oil, multinational conglomerate. There were women workers who desperately needed a union because they were forced by this Belgian company to spray a herbicide that was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s. They needed a union so they'd have protective clothing when they were spraying this chemical.
They were afraid to organize a union because their parents and grandparents had been in a union and had been accused of being communist sympathizers, simply because they were in a union. They were afraid this could happen to them again. They make the palm oil that's in our margarine, that's in our soap and our shampoo.
It's a terrible situation, but it's not an extraordinary one. Everything we buy comes from places like Indonesia, where's there's been mass violence, and the perpetrators have won. In their victory, they've kept the workers in fear and they've kept the human cost out of the price tag we pay.
In that sense, we all depend on men like Anwar and his friends. We depend on this for our everyday living. This is not a distant reality on the other side of the world. This is the underbelly of our reality. It damages us. Just as Anwar and his friends have been damaged by killing people, we are damaged by living lives that depend on people who are killing people.