Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing)


The Act of Killing was the most audacious documentary I saw at SXSW, as well as the most upsetting and politically charged. We’ll have a full review of the film tomorrow when it gets a theatrical release thanks to Drafthouse Films and executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

The documentary explores the Indonesian massacre of 1965-66 through the accounts of the killers, who tell their stories and also recreate them on film. The result is a gut-wrenching portrait of people celebrating their own acts of inhumanity. And yet as these men glorify what they’ve done, something happens that may hint at the redemptive aspects of sharing these sorts of personal narratives. The Act of Killing is a powerful and formally daring achievement, at times both chilling and surreal but ultimately and painfully human. It’s a movie that will stick with me for a long while, and it’s going to be ranked one of the best documentaries of 2013.

I had a chance to speak with director Joshua Oppenheimer over the phone last week. He was flying to Denmark that day but made time to talk. As if it didn’t come through enough in the movie or during the Q & A after the screening the night before, Oppenheimer is very passionate about this dark period in Indonesian history and his duty to share it with the world. We spoke for half an hour about storytelling, moral imperatives, and how these atrocities aren’t so different from things happening in our society today. We probably could have spoken twice as long, but I didn’t know when his flight was and didn’t want him to be late.

[This interview was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of The Act of Killing. Look for review of the film tomorrow morning.]

Werner Herzog and Errol Morris talk about "The Act of Killing"

[Editor’s note: A few of the questions and answers have been altered to avoid spoiling the events of the documentary.]

I was struck by one of the things you said during the Q & A last night: if I remember right, you mentioned that The Act of Killing began when you learned one of your neighbors [in Indonesia] was a survivor of these atrocities. Could you elaborate on that?

I was living in a village outside of the city of Medan — a plantation village — working with plantation workers who were struggling to organize a union, and in the aftermath of the military dictatorship it had been illegal. And I found that one woman I was working with — she wasn’t my neighbor, I think that got confused. She was a few [Editor’s note: word unclear] down. But she was the main character in that film. She’s a plantation worker who was spraying a weed killer without wearing a mask, and it was being ingested because on her lunch break it would be on her hands. It was destroying her liver.

And it turned out that all of the people I was filming with were afraid to organize this union they were creating through any real activism because in 1965 and 66 there’d been [a union], and its plantation workers and its members were accused of being leftists and then put in concentration camps or killed. These people who were killed were the aunts, uncles, and grandparents of the people I was filming with. And with this woman [from that film], we talked about how we could tell the story of what happened to the victims faithfully, and it was this woman who suggested that I film the killers, and I could start right across the street with my neighbor.

My gosh. Okay, now I see.

I think that was part of the confusion. “Your neighbor is the one who killed my aunt.” And that’s how the process began.

Indonesia's genocidal killers go unpunished in The Act of Killing

You mentioned that you’d interviewed many of the killers who committed these crimes. What were their reactions when you asked them to tell their stories?

They were pretty uniform. I mean, many of these people were older, so I was hesitant. I didn’t think I’d go in and ask them, “How did you kill people?” That wouldn’t work, or you wouldn’t assume that’s going to work. So I thought, well, what I’ll do is ask them about their youth. What I would start with was, okay, they were obviously retired older people so I’d say, “What did you do for a living?” You know, “What did you do before you retired?” And then I would get–

Well, starting with the neighbor, and it’s typical, I asked, “What did you do for a living?”

And he said, “Well, I’d been the security guard on this plantation, but I was promoted to being the manager because I had actually exterminated the communists on this plantation.”

And I’d ask, “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, there was this big union here and they were all secretly communists, and I beat them up. I used to be very strong,” and he’d show me his muscles and how he’s still pretty strong, “and I’d beat them up until they were unconscious and then drown them in irrigation ditches.”

And he would just start laughing as he started telling me this, and he was telling me this in front of his 10-year-old granddaughter who watched on bored as if she’d heard this story many times before.

So with each of the killers they were volunteering these stories. I was asking myself not only, “What did they do at the time,” but also, “Why are they volunteering their stories? How do they want to be seen by the rest of the world?” Or in the case of my neighbor, “How did he want to be seen by his granddaughter and how did he really see himself?” And I realized that if I let these men tell their stories, they can tell it however they wish, and in documenting the process I would be able to answer those questions.

Anwar Congo behind the camera in The Act of Killing

There’s a sort of glorification or hagiography about these murderers. Do you think there’s anything unique about their place in Indonesian society? Is it a larger symptom of human nature in general?

I think both, actually. I mean, of course when you meet perpetrators of atrocities, when you see perpetrators of atrocities in films, or you read their testimonies, they usually deny what they’ve done or they apologize for it. Here you have people who are doing neither, and I think the reason for that is that normally when you hear from perpetrators of atrocities it’s already been accepted by everybody that this was an atrocity. That there’s a crime. Or that the perpetrators — even if they don’t accept it in their hearts — are forced to accept it because they’ve been thrown out of power. But here you have perpetrators who’ve won, who are still in power, who have retained their power through celebrating what they did because it’s terrifying for the rest of society to hear genocide commemorated against the dead.

So on the one hand you can say there’s a kind of Machiavellian use of fear; the use of storytelling as an instrument of fear by the killers in this society. I don’t believe that’s as far as we’d like to think from our own society. If you imagine Native Americans watching westerns–

Yeah, yeah.

It might be pretty upsetting and frightening, you know, especially in the early days of cinema. It was only about 100 years ago; [and they may have been] some Native Americans who remember the genocide of the 19th century. Could you imagine an old Native American watching a western, which would be a celebration of genocide? Or African Americans watching Birth of a Nation, with the Klan riding grandly to the rescue of white advocates of segregation and slavery. That’s pretty horrifying. So storytelling can be an instrument of fear, and that’s one part of it.

But I think Anwar’s story became very interesting. [Editor’s note: Anwar is one of the killers who is featured prominently in the film.] And just before I go on about Anwar: I think one of the things I was trying to do was expose how stories were being used as an instrument of fear in society on the behalf of the survivors. It was a way of exposing a whole regime of terror. The woman who suggested that I film the killers said, “One reason we can’t do this safely is because the killers are still in power. But if you film them and you film their boasting — and they’ll be boastful, and they’ll seem to be proud — if you film that, people will see exactly why we’re afraid.” I was seeking to expose this grotesque commemoration of genocide as a way exposing a regime of terror on behalf of the survivors and the human rights community in Indonesia.

It turned out, in a way, that Anwar — because his trauma is actually close to the surface — he was particularly prolific in generating these kind of grotesque and absurd images of celebration of atrocity. But I think every time he does that, it’s somehow actually a reaction to his incipient guilt, and that’s the other part of this story. When he danced the cha-cha on the roof [where he murdered hundreds of people], he’s not just saying, “To hell with my victims! I can dance on their graves!” Although that’s what it looks like at first, or maybe the dominant image is that. But if you look more deeply there, he’s trying to forget what he did because it haunts him, and so he goes and does drugs and drinks and goes dancing.

Similarly, when he comes up with this crazy image of the victims waiting for him in heaven and giving him a medal to thank him for killing them, he came up with that right after playing the victim [in a murder recreation] and got very upset by it. So I think the celebration of genocide for the perpetrators is a way for the perpetrators to reassure themselves that they can live with what they’ve done. In a sense there’s this tension between my trying to expose a regime of terror by working with a man to let him create these celebratory images of genocide, and his project of psychologically convincing himself and the world that what he did was okay.

The movie within a movie in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing

There’s an interesting second part to that about storytelling as an instrument of fear because storytelling in your film also becomes a kind of instrument for moral understanding or historical understanding. Do you think the impulse to use storytelling to understand ourselves or to cause fear is interrelated? Or maybe they’re diametrically opposed forces?

I think you’re making an excellent point, and it’s one that I don’t think I have great language for expressing yet. But I think it’s absolutely what the film is doing. Because… Your point is of course correct. For the reasons I just said, I wasn’t trying to lead [Anwar] into some kind of psychodrama. I was resisting that because I was trying to generate these allegories for their impunity.

I think that’s why it’s so effective when that moment toward the end of the film comes — it’s about what he realizes on his own.

On his own, exactly. The process is like holding a mirror up to himself. It’s as though the image in the mirror is of his own creation, in the sense that it’s giving someone a chance to paint their own portrait. He paints a little and steps back and looks at it. He paints some more and looks at it. He decides what to paint next. And at some point he realizes that this is not going to be a beautiful picture, and there’s no way of making it a beautiful picture. It’s a bit like The Picture of Dorian Gray, somehow.

Just noticing all of a sudden as you create this image of yourself — even if it is fantastical — just how ugly the fantasy is.

The other thing that’s interesting when you think of it from the perspective of what Anwar’s trying to do psychologically perhaps… Or my understanding of what he’s trying to do: there’s no option of him of making just glorious and heroic scenes; he has to show the killings. I think that’s what he’s trying to paint; that’s what he’s trying to distance himself from; that’s what he’s trying to make okay. It wouldn’t satisfy him to just produce scenes like the waterfall and the fish, the scene with him as a loving grandfather. He needs to actually show the horror and contain it to distance himself from it in the same way that he used Elvis Presley music to distance himself from the act of killing when he was killing people.

A stylized sequence from Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing

Do you still stay in contact with Anwar?

I’m in pretty regular touch with Anwar. And tell me if I’m repeating something that you hear me say last night, because it was a long Q & A [and outside chat] in the lobby.

[laughs] No worries.

Anwar didn’t want to see the film when we were finishing it. We knew exactly how painful it would be. And I certainly didn’t insist because I knew what he knew was in the film, and I knew it would be hard for him. And then the film came out in Toronto and he was very emotional about it. I’m sorry, it was a big story and he was very emotional about being the center of a big story, and then he asked to see it. We set up this screening and he watched it. I was no longer able to be with him in person because it was no longer safe, but I was there on Skype. And he was very moved by the film.

I was in touch with him a lot before he asked to see it trying to explain to him what was going on: why the film was eliciting this reaction, what’s in the film, reminding him of what’s in it, and explaining very simple things, like why it wouldn’t be a good idea to come to the screenings of the film in Telluride or Toronto — he wouldn’t be seen as a hero.

We had a lot of talks before he saw the film, and he said, “Look, Josh, I really need to see the film.” He saw the film, and it was a very painful moment for him, but a very important one, I think. I know he cried. He said he’d remain loyal to the film, and indeed he has. It’s kind of astounding. I was worried, I said to him, “You don’t have to, Anwar. I don’t want the paramilitary group to blame you,” but they haven’t. So far they’ve just blamed me and they’ve left him alone.


And I’m in touch with him very regularly to make sure that this is still the case, and to help him out if there’s any problems. You know, we care for each other a lot. We have a pretty deep relationship, and it’s sad that it’s such a pained relationship, but it’s also kind of inevitable somehow.

The waterfall sequence in The Act of Killing

The film’s been screened in Indonesia and obviously that’s what causing a lot of this concern. What’s the dialogue like about The Act of Killing in Indonesia?

Apart from the military officers, the paramilitary movement, and maybe some of the corrupt politicians in the film, the film has been overwhelmingly embraced in Indonesia. In preparing for the release in the United States, we’ve been commissioning all of Indonesia’s leading filmmakers to work together — or five or six of them — to document the way the film is traveling around Indonesia. People talk about it as finally showing in an undeniable way what happened to their society and the origin of the corruption and violence that characterizes their political life.

So younger Indonesians who were too young to remember the Suharto dictatorship, who don’t remember the anti-communist propaganda — they know that something’s wrong with their so-called democracy that doesn’t reflect the people or doesn’t express the popular will in any way, and they don’t really know the origin of that. But then they see the film and they sort of think, “Ah ha, this is why.”

That moment of revelation. “This is our history.”

Yeah, that’s how the youngest Indonesians were seeing it. And then people my age who grew up with the anti-communist propaganda, for them, as Adi says in the film, it turns the history around 180 degrees. And they always suspected that it was a lie. And in fact it was more than that they expected it — they knew it. And the film for them, as I may have said last night, [it’s like being] the child in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The king’s naked and everybody knew it, but they were too afraid to say it. Having seen the the film, there’s no going back.

For people who are older who were involved in building this regime, I think it’s been very devastating, because the film shows to some extent what they’ve been a part of. The editors of the leading Indonesian news magazines and media outlets I think have seen the film as an almost cautionary tale: “My god. Okay, we didn’t kill people maybe like Anwar, but we’re part of this.” Because they knew they didn’t kill people with their own hands, they have the courage to say, “We better deal with this now because we don’t want to end up like Anwar on the roof.” And so the Indonesian media, which is pretty much led by people who are part of this system, has been really brave in starting to talk about what’s happened.

The film has really been embraced by the media, by survivors, by journalists, by filmmakers, by everybody. We held a screening in a cinema in Jakarta. It was during a period when Jakarta had bad floods. We had 600 people, the cinema was totally full, with people sitting in the aisles, [and they’d been] walking through floodwater waist deep. We were in a part of the city that had a total blackout from the floods, and people were trying to get to the cinema in the hopes that there would be a generator around to project the film.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer with the subjects of The Act of Killing

Oh my gosh.

And they had a generator. And stories like that abound all over the country. It is incredible, and Drafthouse [Films] is trying to document some of that now for the release of this film.

I don’t want to hold you up because I know you need to travel. My last question is — and it’s a broad one — do you think as a filmmaker you have a moral imperative whether as a pure documentarian or an investigative journalist? Is there a moral imperative in your work?

You mean in my method or my message?

A bit of both. Because I think the method of The Act of Killing — to focus on the killers rather than the survivors–

I think… I think that when the survivor that I was working with told me, “Film the killers and everyone will see why we are afraid,” she was absolutely right. As I think I said earlier, when–. Oh, but I can’t recall [if I did say this]. [laughs] If I did, then I’m sorry. [laughs]

[laughs] Oh, no, no, no — don’t apologize.

When I filmed the first killer, I felt like– Did I just say this to you?

No, this is new territory for me.

Okay. So when I filmed the first killer it was my next door neighbor, I said that, right?

Anwar Congo demonstrates how he killed hundreds of people in The Act of Killing


And then I felt like I had to film every killer I could find. I felt it was my duty, my obligation. There was a moral imperative to film every killer I could find, because these were stories of world and historical importance with details of the massacre of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people that were going to be lost as these men grew old and died in a region where nobody had ever documented this. And I felt I had no choice but to do it. It was like a duty, and obligation, a burden that had fallen into my lap and I just had to deal with it, the way you deal with an illness, almost.

And I think that there was also a sense that I had to continue with the project until philosophically, morally, politically, artistically the whole story was told as powerfully as I could do it. And I just kept going. I would shoot would with Anwar and we’d go to some deep place, and I’d realize we haven’t shown enough of the political structure around him, and I’d have to go back to film with some of the leading politicians, but then we need more reflection from Anwar about what all of this means. It just kept going, and I felt compelled to make this as comprehensive as this could be without compromising the essential fact that it’s not an exhaustive historical investigation but a portrait of a regime of fear now and how we construct our world through stories, and in ways that can be terrible.

I think I felt compelled to continue, and I think I felt… I never doubted the moral perspective of the film, but some viewers who are resistant to the film will say, “Aren’t you giving them a platform?” I think to myself, not only am I not giving them a platform, but I think back to what this woman said, “Film the killers and everyone will see why we are afraid.” And I think that’s just as true as ever, and the people who are asking this question (“Aren’t you giving them a platform?”) know that it’s true as well but are too afraid — and I don’t blame them — to deal with the consequences of the movie: we are all closer to the perpetrators than we’d like to think. I think some people reject the movie because it’s too frightening for them to see a part of themselves in Anwar, or to see part of our society in that society, because the moment we do that, the whole edifice of the world being divided into good guys and bad guys, which is really an escapist fantasy, crumbles. And we have to deal with the fact that we are all perpetrators too; that our prosperity, our comfort, our lives depend on the suffering of others, particularly as we now precipitate a global ecological crisis.

I think the moral imperative of the film for viewers could be maybe summed up thus: look at yourself, look at the world, and do not flinch from what’s most frightening and most painful.

And that makes sense given the entire approach. We go back to the idea of the mirror and the portrait: it’s all about being able to observe what we’re becoming and to look at ourselves.

To just say one more thing about it, someone asked me this question somewhere — I don’t remember, maybe Berlin, one of the festivals — “Did you ever feel that you just wanted to get out of there and go home?”

Lynndie England and the inhumane treatment of Abu Ghraib detainees

I mean, did you?

You know, when I first filmed a killer taking me to a place where he killed people… It was February 2004. It was two killers. They took me down to a riverbank where they were given busloads of people every night to decapitate. They were given over by the army from concentration camps, they were prisoners. And they chopped off their heads and went home every night. 10,500 people were killed at that spot according to some folio of Indonesian army notes that I came across in an office in Medan. And after showing me how these guys did this, one of the two death squad leaders pulled out a point-and-shoot camera from his pocket and asked my sound guy to take pictures of him and the other death squad leader posing with the river flowing behind them. And they started doing the thumbs up and V for victory.

What? Oh my god!

Oh my god! Right! But that was in February 2004. And in April 2004, shortly after I got back to England, pictures appeared in all of the world’s media of American soldiers in Iraq giving thumbs up and doing the V for victory while torturing people.


And I was making this film contemporaneously with an evolving nightmare at home where we were celebrating at home my government, who was not just condoning torture or practicing torture but denying it, but really celebrating it. Really, in a sort of “Yahoo!” way just celebrating torture. And the pundits were saying torture is too good for these guys. And they were not only doing that, they were getting methods of torture!

Yeah, exactly!

Guantanamo [got it] from watching Jack Bauer. Anwar got it from watching gangster films. So I felt as I was making this film — and this is the fundamental moral position of the film, the final moral imperative — that there’s nowhere to escape to.

This is not a story about a strange place where killers have won. Killers usually win, and they usually build their normality on the basis of terror and lies.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.