"The Act of Killing": New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian
Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres
The film is set in Indonesia, where, beginning in 1965, military
and paramilitary forces slaughtered up to a million Indonesians
after overthrowing the democratically elected government. That
military was backed by the United States and led by General
Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades.
There has been no truth and reconciliation commission, nor have
any of the murderers been brought to justice. As the film
reveals, Indonesia is a country where the killers are to this
day celebrated as heroes by many. Oppenheimer spent more than
eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and
in "The Act of Killing," he works with them to re-enact the
real-life killings in the style of American movies in which the
men love to watch — this includes classic Hollywood gangster
movies and lavish musical numbers. A key figure he follows is
Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand people with
his own hands and is now revered as a founding father of an
active right-wing paramilitary organization. We also ask
Oppenheimer to discusses the film’s impact in Indonesia, where
he screened it for survivors and journalists who have launched
new investigations into the massacres. The film is co-directed
by Christine Cynn and an Indonesian co-director who remains
anonymous for fear of retribution, as does much of the
Indonesian film crew. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog
and Errol Morris. "The Act of Killing" opens today in New York
City, and comes to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., on July 26,
then to theaters nationwide.
Posted July 19, 2013
Today we spend the hour with the director of a groundbreaking
new documentary called The Act of Killing. The film is
set in Indonesia, where beginning in 1965 the military and
paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after
overthrowing the government. That military was backed by the
United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule
Indonesia for decades. There’s been no truth and reconciliation
commission. As the film says, Indonesia is a country where the
killers are, to this day, celebrated as heroes. A key figure in
the film is Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand,
people with his own hands and is now revered as a founding
father of an active right-wing paramilitary organization.
director Joshua Oppenheimer spent more than eight years
interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and in The
Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the
real-life killings in the style of American movies the men love
to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and
lavish musical numbers. The film is remarkable.
issue of the Indonesian military’s brutality is no stranger to
our Democracy Now! audience. In 1990 and '91, I
traveled to Indonesia and occupied East Timor. I went there with
reporter Allan Nairn. There, we witnessed a massacre by the
U.S.-backed Indonesian military. That was the Indonesian
military occupying a foreign land. This film deals with the
Indonesian military's murder of its own people.
week, I sat down with Joshua Oppenheimer to talk about The
Act of Killing, which he directed with Christine Cynn and
an Indonesian co-director who remains anonymous for fear of
retribution for making the film, as does much of the Indonesian
film crew. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol
Morris. The Act of Killing opens today in New York City
at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and comes to Los Angeles and
Washington, D.C., July 26, then to theaters nationwide. This is
a clip from the film’s trailer.
[translated] Cut! Cut! Cut! You acted so well, but you
can stop crying now.
[translated] "War crimes" are defined by the winners.
I’m a winner.
[translated] Have mercy on me!
[translated] Honestly, I never expected it to look this
can’t do that again.
[translated] I did this to so many people. Have I
That’s the trailer for The Act of Killing, a new
film that has been eight years in the making. Its director,
Josh Oppenheimer, joins us now in studio, longtime filmmaker
who has worked for over a decade with militias, death
squads, their victims, to examine political violence and the
public imagination. The Act of Killing’s
co-director remains anonymous. Its executive producers are
Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Joshua Oppenheimer, welcome to
Thank you so much.
This is an astounding film. It is a masterpiece. We’ll talk
about whether it can be called a documentary. I wanted to
ask you if you could just give us the context of what
happened. People—many people who are watching—
—or listening right now have never even heard of Suharto, so
explain to us what happened in 1965.
So, in 1965, the left-leaning government of Sukarno—it was
basically a socialist nonaligned government, Sukarno was the
founder of independent Indonesia—was overthrown in a
military coup that led to the dictatorship, the 32-year
dictatorship of Suharto, and then an ongoing corruption that
continues to today. When Sukarno was overthrown, the
military swiftly went after everybody who was opposed to the
new regime and accused them of being communists. Of course,
some of them were communists. Indonesia had the largest
communist party, that was committed to achieving political
power through the democratic process. They were an unarmed,
non—in a way, non-revolutionary communist party. There
was—so they were accused, but also women’s—the Indonesian
women’s movement, the entire trade union movement,
intellectuals, teachers, and the ethnic Chinese, and also
land reform advocates. So, within somewhere—within a year,
somewhere between half a million and two-and-a-half million
people were killed in what was really one of the very
largest genocides in our history.
was reported in the United States as good news. It was
reported in The New York Times and Time
magazine fairly accurately in terms of the death tolls, but
with headlines like "A Gleam of Light in Asia," "The West’s
Best News for Years in Asia." So, inevitably, these events
have been forgotten in the West, because how do you remember
the killing of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of
people as good news? It doesn’t make sense as a story, and
so we forget it.
Can you talk about the U.S. role at the time, something that
—very much—if people even know about what happened here,
it’s a story that isn’t as well known.
Yes. The U.S. was—and the West, in general, particularly the
U.K., probably Australia, were very much involved with
supporting and encouraging the genocide. The U.S. provided
money. It provided some weapons. It provided radios so that
the army could coordinate the killings across this vast
archipelago that is Indonesia. They also provided death
lists, lists of thousands of names that—of fairly prominent
public figures, leftists, leaders of unions, intellectuals.
So it wasn’t meaningful intelligence, but it was a clear
signal: We want these people dead.
And these are political officers within the U.S. embassy
handing over names of people, and they were crossing off the
names as they were killed.
Yeah. One of them was a guy called Bob Martens, from the—a
former State Department official who, when we met him, was
living in Bethesda, Maryland. And another was the
CIA deputy station chief, Joe
Lazarsky, living in suburban Virginia. They were handing
out—they were handing over these lists of names. Basically,
I remember—actually, Bob Martens was on the record in 1990;
he was interviewed by a journalist called Kathy Kadane, and
he said, "I may have blood on my hands, but sometimes that’s
a good thing."
you know, the whole—beyond that list of names, who were
people the Indonesian army certainly knew about, the whole
message from the United States was: We want you not to just
go after a few political leaders who are opposed to the new
regime, the leaders of the Communist Party, for example; we
want you to go after the entire grassroots base of the
Indonesian left. It’s as if one day everybody affiliated
with the Democratic Party and everybody registered as a
Democrat was hunted down and killed or put in concentration
camps. That’s essentially what happened in Indonesia in
1965, with Western support.
Let’s talk about your film. You’re giving the political
backdrop. Talk about how you discovered the people in your
film. And begin with the name, because that very much tells
us the story, The Act of Killing, and its various
Yeah, The Act of Killing is, of course, the title
of the film. It has a few—it has several meanings. Of
course, it can refer to the commission of the crime of
killing or commission of the deed of killing, which, it’s
worth pointing out, is fundamentally a human act. We have
really no other species, except for a couple of the higher
primates, kill each other. Human beings kill each other, and
we kill each other en masse and again and again and
again through our history. So there’s a sense that the film
looks at what does it mean for human beings to kill. What
are the consequences of killing? Why do—why do we kill? What
are the consequences on our societies for impunity around
killing? How do we justify killing through the stories we
then, in Medan, in the capital of North Sumatra, the largest
city in Sumatra, the third-largest city in Indonesia, a city
of about the size perhaps of Chicago, the army recruited in
1965 its civilian death squad members from the ranks of
movie theater gangsters, preman bioskop in
Indonesian. These men were gangsters. They were part of a
mafia that was running all sorts of criminal rackets,
protection rackets, smuggling, illegal logging, prostitution
rings, and so forth, but they were using as their base of
operations movie theaters. And they were selling movie
theater tickets on the black market as a kind of small side
source of income. And they loved the movies. And because
they were hanging out in them, so they developed a whole
culture around the movies, whole kind of youth gang culture
around the movies.
the time, the head of the American Motion Picture
Association of Indonesia, a man named Bill Palmer, was
believed by ordinary Indonesians to have been involved—been
plotting a coup to overthrow the president of Indonesia,
Sukarno. He was—he had a villa outside—the head of the
American—the distributor of American movies in Indonesia had
a villa outside of Jakarta in which they found a
memorandum—which may or may not have been a forgery, we
don’t know—planning—signed by the British ambassador,
Gilchrist—again, could have been a forgery—but it was
discovered, and it was a coup attempt against President
Sukarno. So everybody had reason to think in Indonesia at
the time that the head—the guy bringing American movies to
Indonesia, Hollywood movies to Indonesia, was in fact a
CIA officer and planning to
overthrow their founding father, if you like. So there was a
boycott, a wide-ranging, a wide—you know, a broad-based
boycott of American movies in 1964, ’65.
the movie theater gangsters hated this. So the army
recruited them because they knew they had a proven capacity
for violence, because they were criminals, gangsters, and
they knew that they hated the Indonesian left already and
could be easily mobilized to do their dirty work in
attacking the left once the killing started. So the movie
theater gangsters were recruited to form these death squads.
it happened, they loved—because of their love of movies, and
because the army had placed the offices where they were
killing people directly across the street from the cinema,
so that it was convenient for them to leave the cinema, walk
across the street and torture and kill people, they would
torture and kill people in ways inspired by American movies.
And the main character in the film, Anwar Congo, describes
coming out of the movies, the midnight show—an Elvis Presley
musical, for example—dancing his way across the street and
killing happily. So, acting was always part of the act of
killing for the men in the film. It was a way of distancing
themselves from the horrific deeds they were doing.
of course, then, in my film, I have them—or I allow them to
re-enact what they’ve done, to dramatize what they’ve done
in whatever ways they wish. It’s worth, perhaps, in a
moment, going into how I came to that method. But so, "the
act of killing" has this double and even triple meaning, how
acting was always part of the act of killing, how in the
film they act out their memories of killing. And finally,
it’s worth remembering that the act of killing needn’t
be—needn’t refer simply to the act of killing human beings.
It can—as it does in this case—as The Act of Killing
demonstrates, I hope, as the film demonstrates, it also
refers to the act of killing ideas, hope, community,
solidarity, and sort of our common humanity.
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. He spent more than eight years
interviewing Indonesian death squad leaders, and in his new
film, The Act of Killing, he works with them to
re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies
the men love to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster
movies and lavish musical numbers. The Act of Killing
opens today in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and
then moves on to Los Angeles and Washington and the rest of the
country. We’ll continue our interview in a moment.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War
and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with my
interview with the director of a groundbreaking new documentary
called The Act of Killing. The film is about Indonesia,
where, beginning in 1965, the U.S.-backed military and
paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after
overthrowing the government. A key figure in the film, Anwar
Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand, people with his
own hands, now revered as a founding father of an active
right-wing paramilitary. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent more
than eight years interviewing Indonesian death squad leaders; in
The Act of Killing, works with them to re-enact the
real-life killings in the style of American movies. Let’s go
back to the interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, but first a scene
from The Act of Killing.
[translated] There’s many ghosts here, because many
people were killed here. They died unnatural deaths.
Unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy. When
they got here, they were beaten up, and died. At first,
we beat them to death. But there was too much blood.
There was so much blood here. So when we cleaned it up,
it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this
system. Can I show you?
Sit there. Face that way. We have to re-enact this
properly. This is how to do it without too much blood.
I’ve tried to forget all this, with good music, dancing,
feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana, a
little—what do you call it? Ecstasy? Once I’d get drunk,
I’d fly and feel happy.
Anwar Congo describing the act of killing. Joshua
Oppenheimer, you’re the director. Take it from there.
This was in fact the very first day that I met Anwar or
filmed Anwar. And it was typical, in a way. As I was saying
earlier, I began this process in the countryside outside of
the city of Medan working with survivors. They would send me
to meet perpetrators. The perpetrators would boast. When we
would go back and film with the survivors, however, the
military would come and stop us. The army and the police
would come and stop us. They would detain us. They would
take our equipment. They would take our tapes. And it was
very difficult to get anything done, and it was terrifying
for the survivors themselves.
regrouped. We went to Jakarta as a group with the survivors
with whom we were filming, met the broader Indonesian human
rights community and asked, "Is this too soon, after the
fall of the Suharto dictatorship, for us to make this film?
Is it still too sensitive?" We showed what we had filmed
with the perpetrators. We asked, "Is it too dangerous?"
Everybody said, "No, you must continue. We need—you’re on to
something terribly important, and we need a film that
exposes, for Indonesians themselves—above all, for
Indonesians themselves—the nature of the regime in which
they’re living, things that they already know but have been
too afraid to say. Essentially, we need a film that comes to
Indonesia, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes,
pointing to things we know are true but are too afraid to
articulate, so that we can now articulate them without
talked about how we could do this safely, and one of the key
survivors in the film said, "You know, why don’t you—why
don’t you film more perpetrators? Because you’re finding out
what happened, and in their boasting, the audience can see
exactly why we’re so afraid, and also you can see the nature
of this regime, what’s wrong with it, that these men could
boast this way."
so, I went back and started to realize, this is—it’s as
though I am in Nazi Germany 40 years after the end of the
Holocaust, and it’s still the Third Reich, the Nazis are
still in power. So the official history says nothing about
the killings. But, and yet, the aging SS officers have been
allowed to boast about what they’ve done, even encouraged to
do so, so that they’ve become these kind of feared proxies
of the state in their communities, in their regions, and
also perhaps that they can justify to themselves what they
have done. And I realized at that point that this was a
reality so grave, so important, that I would give it
whatever it took of my life.
realized, I suppose, at that point, I knew that I would have
to film every perpetrator I could find across the region,
working my way up the chain of command, to the city of Medan
and beyond, to retired army generals in Jakarta, to a
retired State Department and CIA
officer living outside of D.C. And I worked my way across
the region. Every perpetrator I met was boastful. Every
perpetrator I met was open. Within minutes of speaking to
me, they would tell me these awful stories. Then typically
they would invite me to the places where they killed. I
always said, "Yes, take me," because I wanted to know what
happened. I knew that we’re talking about the deaths of tens
of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people in
one region. And these men, as they would forget—as they
would grow old and die, the facts of what had happened would
felt entrusted by the survivors and the human rights
community to film every single person I could find.
Somewhere—Anwar, the main character in The Act of
Killing, was the 41st killer I filmed. And somewhere
around 10 or 15, my questions started to shift from "What
happened back in 1965?" to "What’s going on now that these
men can boast like this? Why are they boasting? For whom are
they boasting? How do they want to be seen by the rest of
the world? And how do they see themselves?"
Anwar Congo, it is said, has killed a thousand people.
Yes, yes, that’s right. That’s what he’s—
With the piano wire or in all the different methods he used.
Describe going out with him to the countryside.
There’s two times we go to the countryside, actually.
There’s one time where he re-enacts a killing which he
thinks is the source of his nightmares. Of course, it’s not.
He says he’s killed one person and failed to close the
person’s eyes. He’s cut off a head, and the head stares at
him. And he is in—starting to talk about his pain. It’s one
of these conflicting moments, in that he’s, on the one hand,
opening up about his pain and his trauma and his brokenness,
at the same time as he’s still lying to himself about what
he’s—about the source of his nightmares. He has killed a
thousand people. He’s saying his nightmares come from this
That’s—that was one moment, and that is a crucial moment in
the film, in that it opens up the whole exploration of his
conscience, which I was resistant to throughout the film. I
felt as though I had been entrusted by a community of
survivors to expose a whole regime, and I was asking
questions of the nature of the regime. I was not interested
in leading a killer to remorse. But as it’s happened, his
broke—discovering his brokenness has been the most effective
exposé, if you like, of the rottenness of the whole regime,
because if he was a genuine hero, if he was really this sort
of founding father of this great new order, he would be
enjoying his old age in peace. But instead, he is tormented,
and the other killers you meet in the film are totally
hollow, and also, in a way, therefore, destroyed by what
they’ve done. And I think that has resonated so much with
Indonesians as they see the film. They say, "My gosh, what
is the nature of this country?"
So talk about the Pancasila. Talk about what is happening
So, there is a—Anwar is a founding father of this
paramilitary movement called Pancasila Youth, as are all of
the killers we meet in the film. And it is a
three-million-strong right-wing paramilitary gangster
movement that has the support of the government. There’s a
scene in the film where we see the vice president of
Indonesia, the then-vice president of Indonesia—
—addressing—Jusuf Kalla, addressing a rally of Pancasila
Youth, wearing the—wearing their trademark orange
camouflage. Obviously, camouflage we think of as something
you wear so that you blend in. Bright orange camouflage you
wear so that you stand out. It exists so that—it exists so
that these people are feared. It exists to scare people. And
he addresses—the vice president of Indonesia addresses this
rally and says, "We need our gangsters. We need to be able
to beat people up so that we can get things done." And
there’s a key—
This is the vice president saying this, and gangster, he
And, indeed, the word for "gangster" in Indonesia is
preman, which comes from the Dutch "free man." So,
it’s—they’ve used this etymological, not quite coincidence,
but essentially by now a coincidence, to euphemize and
justify a whole—the whole existence of a gangster, a
parallel system of gangsters.
one of the—the other time in the film where we take Anwar to
the countryside is to re-enact a massacre of a village.
Pancasila Youth has sort of, I don’t know, set as its sort
of most heroic victory a—its most heroic victory was the
massacre of a village called Kampung Kolam, and it’s a
village outside of Medan where they basically went in, they
said it was a secret communist base, but they went in, and
they raped, looted and massacred. And to understand how this
whole right-wing paramilitary movement sees itself, I
gathered together the—about a hundred young leaders in this
movement, a minister in the government, a deputy—the deputy
minister of youth and sport—his dossier is to look after
political gangsters, with "youth" being a euphemism for
gangster. He flies in from Jakarta to act—to direct and act
in this massacre. And they re-enact the destruction of a
village. We build a set. We build a village. They cast their
children and their wives to play the victims. And they set
about destroying the village. And very real trauma comes up,
especially for Anwar, during the course of that—of that
In that scene, when they say, "Cut! Cut!" because they’re
also directing the scene—they’re in it, and they’re
directing it, like a movie. One of the little girls keeps
Talk about the response to her by one of the killers.
Well, it’s actually—the girl who’s crying is Herman, Anwar’s
sidekick and sort of one of the three main characters in the
film, his daughter. And she—all of the children in the film
have been auditioned for their ability to cry. And they’re
not actually children of victims; they’re playing children
of victims. She cries. Herman does his best to comfort her.
He has a very wonderful line where he says, "Movie stars
normally only cry for a second, so pull yourself together.
You’re embarrassing your father."
in a way, I think that her—the child—the children’s crying
is not what’s—it’s always disturbing to see children cry in
film, but that’s probably not the most disturbing thing.
There’s another woman there who’s the wife of a high-ranking
paramilitary leader, who is, on a—in another moment in the
film, her husband is saying, "God hates the communists," on
television. She looks like she’s fainted. And an Indonesian
viewer will say she’s kesurupan, or possessed. And
they’re trying to kind of purge the ghost, so they’re trying
to exorcise the ghosts that possess her. Whether we believe
in possession and ghosts or not, what’s clear is that she is
old enough to have experiences of this, even though she’s
married to a high-ranking perpetrator. Some real memory or
real trauma comes up through the process.
think it speaks to—it speaks really to something at the core
of the film, which is that no matter how much, as a
filmmaker, as an artist, I tried to stay in control of what
was happening and control the experience that was unfolding
in the shooting and also in the edited film, I think we were
all—all of us were overwhelmed. It was like a tsunami
overtaking us. And I think, in hindsight, you cannot walk
into a place where a million people have been killed, where
the perpetrators are still in power and are boasting about
it and keeping everybody afraid, and then, it turns out, are
doing that as much to protect their own conscience, so they
can live with themselves, as to keep everybody else down—you
cannot do that and not—and address such a situation honestly
and not be overwhelmed.
Joshua Oppenheimer, talking about his new film, The Act of
Killing. We’ll continue our interview in a moment.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War
and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with
Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the new film, opening tonight,
The Act of Killing.
The premise of the film is that Anwar and his friends are
able to re-enact what they’ve done in whatever ways they
wished. As I was filming perpetrator after perpetrator, they
would take me to the places where they killed. They would
offer to show me—want to show me how they killed. And
gradually, I started asking them, "Look, you’ve"—or saying
to them, very openly, "You’ve participated in one of the
biggest killings in human history. Your whole society is
based on it. Your lives are shaped by it. You want to show
me what you’ve done. I want to understand what it means to
you and to your society. So go ahead and show me what you’ve
done, in whatever way you wish. I’ll film the process. I’ll
film your re-enactments. And we’ll combine this material to
show what these events mean to you and your society."
some point, starting with—and I think I actually suspected
that I would combine all of these different perpetrators
from across the region, but I lingered on this one main
character, Anwar Congo, because his pain was close to the
surface, his memories were present, the past was with us as
he would re-enact, and it was haunting. So, and he was a
movie theater gangster, so he started to propose—he had this
love of American movies. He started to propose these more
and more complicated re-enactments that were inspired by the
genres of his favorite movies, Hollywood movies from the
’50s and ’60s.
would invite in—I think to—he would watch his re-enactments,
and he would always look pained. And then he would—but he
wouldn’t express what was wrong. He would never say, "This
is awful because it makes me look bad." The pain that he
would—that would be all over his face when he would watch
his re-enactments, he would not dare articulate, because to
do so would be to admit what he did was wrong. And he’s
never been forced to do so. He’s never been forced to admit
what he did was wrong. Normally, in documentaries about
perpetrators, perpetrators deny what they’ve done, or they
apologize, act apologetic about it, at least. And that’s
because by the time we speak to them, they’ve been
approached as perpetrators, they’ve been removed from power,
they’ve been framed as people who have done something wrong,
so they deny or they apologize. These men are still in
Anwar watching his re-enactments would look disturbed, and
instead of saying why he’s disturbed, he would take that
emotion and place it into something trivial, like "My
clothes are wrong. My hair—I need to dye my hair. My acting
isn’t good." So, he started to embellish the scenes and
create these more and more surreal, more and more strange
re-enactments, which I filmed because I understood they were
allegories for a whole system of impunity—what happens to us
collectively as individuals when we kill, when we have an
original crime, we get away with it, we justify it, and
therefore we cling to that justification, we persecute the
survivors, lest they should challenge our version of the
events. So, Anwar starts to embellish, and the motor, if you
like, for these embellishments is his conscience.
brings in another death squad member, another member of his
death squad named Adi. And the re-enactments get more and
more emotional, more and more intense. And in the next clip,
in the clip we’ll see here, it’s a moment where they’ve just
re-enacted the torture and killing that happened in their
office, downstairs from where Anwar does the cha cha cha
earlier in the—in the earlier clip we saw. They re-enact the
torture and killing in this office, and afterwards, they
respond to it. And the other member of Anwar’s death squad,
Adi, recognizes, wait a minute, this method, these
re-enactments have the power to turn the entire official
history on its head.
Tell us who’s speaking first.
So it’s Adi. The character we’ll see speaking here is named
Adi. He is the other surviving member of Anwar’s very elite
And he has flown in to do this film that you are filming.
Yeah, he flew in midway through the process. I was trying to
meet him from the very beginning, after meeting Anwar, but
Anwar kept him away from me. Anwar wouldn’t introduce me to
him. His full name in Indonesian is Adi. There’s thousands
and thousands of Adis in Jakarta. It was impossible to find
him without Anwar’s help. Anwar only introduced us to him
once Anwar was confident that he was indeed the star of
The Act of Killing. So, at this point, midway,
somewhere in the middle of the film, Adi has finally flown
in from Jakarta, reunited with his old friend and former
killing colleague, and they’re on the set, having just
re-enacted the torture and killing that they did together in
This is Adi in The Act of Killing.
[translated] Listen, if we succeed in making this film,
it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists
being cruel and show that we were cruel.
[translated] We’re the cruel ones.
[translated] If this film is a success. We must
understand every step we take here. It’s not about fear.
It’s 40 years ago, so any criminal case has expired.
It’s not about fear. It’s about image. The whole society
will say, "We always suspected it. They lied about the
communists being cruel." It’s not a problem for us; it’s
a problem for history. The whole story will be
reversed—not 180 degrees, 360 degrees—if we succeed with
[translated] But why should we always hide our history,
if it’s the truth?
[translated] No, the consequence is that everything
Anwar and I have always said is false. It’s not the
communists who were cruel.
[translated] But that’s true.
[translated] I completely agree, but not everything true
should be made public. I believe even God has secrets.
I’m absolutely aware that we were cruel. That’s all I
have to say. It’s up to you what to do about it.
That’s Adi, a killer in Indonesia—after Suharto came to
power, who knows how many people he killed?—in this film,
The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer is the
director. So, he’s coming to realize—I mean, this is a smart
guy—that this does not look very good for them.
Yeah, this is a really—I think there’s a number of really
interesting things about this. One of them is that Adi here
says—warns everybody, "This is going to make us look bad."
And, in fact, he only warns everybody this strongly once in
the film, but in the process he did so many times. But
everybody continued. Nobody heeds his warning.
think there’s a couple really important reasons for that.
For the younger thugs, in the younger generation of
paramilitary gangster leadership, as gangsters, fear is
their capital. So they’re not participating in this film to
look good; they’re participating in this film to look
fearsome. And they’re only able, as we see them doing in the
film, to go into a market and shake down the Chinese market
stall owners—Chinese were, with a broad brush, attacked in
1965, labelled communist just by virtue of having been
ethnically Chinese—they, these men, are not trying to look
good, the other members of—the younger members, the
Pancasila Youth. So they want to continue. Adi’s warning
falls on deaf ears.
think, for Anwar, it’s particularly interesting why he
doesn’t listen to his old best friend’s advice. I think it
has to do with what Anwar is trying to do with this film. He
is trying, actually, somehow, to deal with his own pain.
He’s trying to deal with his nightmares. He finds a forum in
the film to express a pain that the regime has no time for.
The regime wants him to say it was heroic, it was great, so
that, one, he can live with himself, all the other killers
can live with themselves, and the survivors are kept
suppressed and silenced. And suddenly, in the making of the
film, he has a chance to deal with the ghosts that haunt
Earlier, in the first clip we saw, he dances on the roof. We
see him—we cut right where he starts dancing the cha cha cha
on the roof. But if you extend that and watch him dance the
cha cha cha, most viewers will feel appalled. How can a man
dance where he’s killed a thousand people? But just before
he dances, as we will have noticed, he says he’s drinking,
taking drugs, going out dancing, to forget what he’s done.
So, somehow his pain, his conscience was there from the
beginning. And then I think it is his effort to run away
from the meaning of what he’s done that leads him to propose
ever more complicated dramatizations. So, Anwar doesn’t
listen to Adi’s warning here because Anwar actually is
somehow trying to deal with his pain. He’s not trying to
look like a hero. He’s not trying to simply revisit or
restate the official history. He’s trying to actually run
away from and experience—and these are two paradoxical human
needs, I think—run away from and experience his pain.
In the film, The Act of Killing, it ends in a
devastating way. Can you talk a little about what happens?
Yeah, at the end of the film, I think that Anwar is not able
to say the same kinds of things he’s saying throughout the
whole film. He’s speaking the same kind of lines. He takes
us back to that office, where we were at the beginning of
the film, the first time I met him, where he shows how he
killed and then danced the cha cha cha. He takes us back
there. And it’s the first time we’ve gone back, indeed the
first time I went back, in over the course of five years of
shooting 1,200 hours of material. We go back to that office,
and my intention was just to ask him to say what happened in
that office. And he’s speaking very much the same words that
he has at the beginning of the film. But his body, it’s as
though his body physically is rebelling against the line
that he’s been speaking. He can no longer utter these words
and not—and not—and bear it. His body starts—he starts to
retch. And it’s as though, I think, he’s trying to vomit up
the ghosts that haunt him, only to find that he is the
ghost, in the sense that he is what—his past haunts him, and
he is his past, and he’ll never be free of it. And so
nothing comes up. He has lost all of his swagger.
a way, it’s an enduring metaphor for how the film has come
to Indonesia, in the sense that there’s an official—they’re
still—in school, they’re still teaching that the communists
were—they’re still teaching in school that the victims of
the genocide deserved what they got, that it was all—they’re
teaching that the genocide was justified and talking about
it as a kind of heroic chapter in the nation’s history,
without going into the details of the killing. But
Indonesians themselves are starting to recognize that this
is, like Anwar’s words at the end, a kind of hollow line,
because the act of killing is making such a difference
You have shown this film in Indonesia?
Yeah. Indonesia has political film censors. They still
censor films and books that deal with human rights
violations. They ban them. We knew that if we just submitted
the film to the censors before there was Indonesian support
for the film, that it would be banned. If it’s banned, we
knew—if it were banned, we knew that that would be an excuse
for the paramilitary groups in Indonesia or for the army to
physically attack screenings with impunity, because it
becomes a crime to screen the film at all.
get around that, all last autumn, we held screenings at the
National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta for Indonesia’s
leading news producers, news publishers, news journalists,
filmmakers, human rights advocates, survivors’ groups,
historians, educators, writers, artists. Everybody really
embraced the film—you could even say loved the film—said we
have to show this film, we have to get this film out.
news editors did—and publishers, did perhaps the most
interesting thing. If you imagine you’re the editor of
Indonesia’s biggest news magazine, a magazine called
Tempo, you’re very much part of the establishment. And
you’re in your late middle age, and you see this movie where
the founding fathers of that establishment, of your regime,
are totally broken by the end of the film. The main
character is tormented and ravaged. The side characters are
hollow empty shells of human beings. And you’re faced with a
pretty stark choice. They’re not enjoying—these men are not
enjoying their old age as the heroes they’ve been telling
themselves and the rest of the country that they are.
They’re destroyed. You’re faced with a stark choice, if
you’re the editor of Indonesia’s biggest news magazine: Do
you want to grow old as a perpetrator, or do you want to
take a stance?
the editors of Tempo magazine took a particularly
brave stance. They said, "We have to break our silence about
this. After The Act of Killing, we need to open up
about what happened. And we need to marshal fresh evidence
to do so." So they sent 40 journalists, approximately 40
journalists, around the country to regions where they did
not know that killings had even happened. And they basically
wanted to see if The Act of Killing was a
repeatable experiment. Are there other Anwars out there?
they—to their horror, but I do not think to their surprise,
they found that everywhere they—everywhere they sent people,
they came back with—they could immediately find the local
perpetrator, and the local perpetrator was a criminal. The
killers were criminals, put in positions of power by the
army and then encouraged to boast about what they’d done
ever since, so they would be these feared proxies of the
these men, within two weeks, last September, they
gathered—the 40 journalists gathered hundreds and hundreds
of pages of perpetrators boasting. They edited it down to 75
pages. They combined it with 25 pages of coverage of the
film—reviews, contextualizing essays, interviews—and they
came out with a special double edition of Tempo
magazine on the 1st of October last year. It sold out
immediately. It reprinted. It sold out again. It reprinted.
set the tone for the rest of the media to start—to break
their 47-year silence about what happened, to talk about the
genocide as a genocide. Killers in Indonesia will no longer
boast. At the same time, the country has no illusions about
Anwar being the kind of mascot of the genocide. He’s been
contextualized perhaps as one of 10,000 perpetrators of his
Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing,
which opens today in New York City at Landmark Sunshine Cinema
on Houston, then goes to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., July
26, then to theaters nationwide.
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