Death Squad Auteurs
Sep 11, 2012 | 782 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
While working on a film about the links between systemic violence and globalization, Joshua Oppenheimer discovered that a former Indonesian death squad leader was actually proud of all of the communists he had killed in the 1960s and wanted his stories recorded on tape. And so Oppenheimer, a former Telluride attendee with the Great Expectations program, began filming, with one wrinkle: the killers, led by a charismatic but seemingly cold-blooded leader named Anwar Congo, make a fictional film about the systematic murders of more than a million people. The Act of Killing weaves this footage into a story about genocide, memories and power. The journalist Mark Danner, one of the great authorities on torture, called the film ”phantasmagorical and perverse and powerful … as powerful a work on atrocity as I have seen.” And Werner Herzog said, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade.” Oppenheimer told the Film Watch how it was created.

Film Watch: How did you decide to make a film about the genocide in North Sumatra?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I had been making films in Indonesia for three years. The killings would come up in discussions, planning sessions and film shoots nearly every day but always in whispers. Survivors of the killings would discreetly point out the houses of neighbors who had killed their parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. The perpetrators were still living in the same village. They and their children and protégés made up the local power structure. As outsiders, we could interview these perpetrators—something the plantation workers could not do without fear of violence.

Watch: When did you first realize that the killers were proud of what they had done?

Oppenheimer: I filmed a former death squad leader demonstrating how, in less than three months, he and his fellow killers slaughtered 10,500 alleged communists in a single clearing by a river in North Sumatra. When he was finished, he asked my sound recordist to take snapshots of us together by the riverbank. He smiled broadly, gave a thumbs up in one photo, a victory sign in the next.

Watch: It’s amazing that they have no remorse.

Oppenheimer: Unlike in Rwanda, South Africa or Germany, in Indonesia there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, no memorials for victims. Instead, ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honored as national heroes. Men like Anwar Congo boast about what they did.

Watch: It makes more sense that they were eager to be filmed.

Oppenheimer: Gangsters’ power derives from being feared, and so the thugs ruling North Sumatra have trumpeted their role in the genocide, including the grisly details that inspire constant and undiminished terror. They still celebrate themselves as heroes, reminding the public of their role in the massacres, while continuing to threaten the survivors—and they do so even as governors, senators and members of parliament.

Watch: How does the U.S. play into this?

Oppenheimer: In the U.S., champions of torture, disappearance and indefinite detention were in the highest positions of political power. (And) Anwar and his friends so admired American movies, American music, American clothing—all of this made the echoes more difficult to ignore.

Watch: How did you decide to help them make their own film about the massacres?

Oppenheimer: First, to clarify: they don’t make their own film. They make scenes for my movie. They understood that from the beginning, but as their enthusiasm for the filmmaking process grew, their film fantasies took on a life of their own. That’s essential, because it lends everything an extraordinary authenticity. But they never think they are making their own film.

How did I come to this idea? I saw an opportunity: if the gangsters were given the means to dramatize their memories of genocide in whatever ways they wished, they would probably seek to glorify it further. Maybe they’d transform them into a “beautiful family movie,” as Anwar puts it. I anticipated the result of this experiment would serve as an exposé, one that might answer important questions: How do Anwar and his friends think people see them? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? How do they see their victims? The filmmaking method we used is best seen as an investigative technique, revealing how human beings persecute each other and go on to build and live in societies founded on systemic violence.

Watch: And they have strong ideas about what their film should look like. Anwar talks about how Hollywood movies influenced his killing style.

Oppenheimer: Anwar and his friends know and love the cinema and dream of being on the screen themselves. They style themselves after their favorite characters. They even borrowed their methods of murder from the screen. Among the first things I did was bring them to the former newspaper office directly across the road from Anwar’s old cinema, where they killed most of their victims. I filmed as they demonstrated in detail what they had done.

During breaks they would muse about how they looked like various movie stars. Anwar described how he got the idea of strangling people with wire from watching gangster movies, and explained how different film genres would lead him to approach killing in different ways. The most disturbing example was how, after watching a “happy film like an Elvis Presley musical,” Anwar would “kill in a happy way.”

Watch: They really seemed to think about themselves as actors, rather than as killers replaying atrocities.

Oppenheimer: At first, I thought that they would feel the re-enactments made them look bad, and that they might possibly come to a more complex place morally and emotionally. But Anwar was mostly anxious that he should look young and fashionable. He and Herman spontaneously suggested a better, more elaborate, production.

Watch: How did you direct the “fictional” scenes?

Oppenheimer: Whenever possible, I let them direct each other, and used my cameras to document their process of creation.  My role was primarily that of provocateur, challenging them to remember the events they were performing more deeply, encouraging them to intervene and direct each other when they felt a performance was superficial, and asking questions between takes—both about what actually happened but also about how they felt at the time and how they felt as they re-enacted it.

Watch: Did you feel like you were in danger? You were, after all, making a film about people who torture and kill without regret.

Oppenheimer: The film was always collaborative, and except in the very first stages, there were no moments when I felt afraid. Most of my fear came when working with survivors—I felt worried on their behalf, and we were constantly harassed by police, local military, and other authorities. The killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting the killers. Soldiers kept onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn’t be disturbed.

Watch: The re-enactment of the Kampung Kolam massacre is completely terrifying. For a moment, I thought the killers had gone out of control and started really killing again.

Oppenheimer: We didn’t expect a scene of such violence and realism. It was genuinely frightening to the participants, all of whom were Anwar’s friends and their wives and children. They talked amongst themselves about how the location of our re-enactment was just a few hundred meters from one of North Sumatra’s countless mass graves. The woman who faints afterwards felt she had been possessed by a victim’s ghost.  

Watch: It’s so shocking and moving to see what happens in front of the camera. The whole process must have been a revelation for everyone.

Oppenheimer: We wanted to create safe space in which all sorts of things could happen that would probably elude a more conventional documentary method. Anwar and his friends could explore their deepest memories and feelings and their blackest humor. I could challenge them about what they did without fear of being arrested or beaten up. And they could challenge each other in ways that were otherwise unthinkable. Fiction provided one or two degrees of separation from reality. They could paint their own portrait and stand back and look at it.

Watch: Another powerful element is watching Anwar and the others respond to the movie they are making.

Oppenheimer: We screened the most painful scenes. They know what is in the film. They openly debate the consequences of the film, inside the film. I gradually realized Anwar was on a parallel, more personal journey through the filmmaking process. He is the bravest and most honest character. I tried to honour his courage and his openness by presenting him as honestly—and with as much compassion—as I could, while always deferring to the unspeakable acts that he committed.

Watch: For me, it was very confusing to feel any empathy or connection with a mass murderer.

Oppenheimer: The murder of one million people is inevitably fraught with complexity and contradiction. It leaves behind a terrible mess, all the more so when the killers have remained in power, when there has been no attempt at justice.


Denmark, 2012, 120m

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
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