“The Act of Killing,” currently playing here, is a mysterious film, a documentary that appears to be equal parts South Asian musical epic, gangster noir and political/historical essay. The movie’s oddly hybrid nature is largely the result of the strange and sinister reality that Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, found when he first went to Indonesia, the film’s location and subject.
In a recent interview with The Jewish Week, the 38-year-old filmmaker describes the Asian island nation this way:
“It’s as if I’m in Germany 40 years after the war, and the Nazis are still in power. The aging SS officers are encouraged to boast of what they’ve done. This serves two purposes — it keeps the public afraid and it helps [the killers] live with the reality of their actions. They boast about it as a way of insisting that what they did is in fact something they can live with.”
This, Oppenheimer says, is the reality of Indonesia, nearly 40 years after the 1965 coup that brought down the Sukarno government in a welter of brutality, torture and murder. It is estimated that minions of the junta murdered more than a million Indonesians — Communists, labor organizers, countless ethnic Chinese and ordinary laborers who had the misfortune to belong to the soon-to-be outlawed and crushed union movements. They were all called “communists” and beaten to death.
The primary instruments of these murders were young street toughs, self-proclaimed gangsters who had begun their careers as petty criminals enthralled by the violent images produced by Hollywood and displayed on their local movie screens. Today, more than a decade after the New Order government headed by General Suharto was ostensibly brought down and replaced by a democracy, these now elderly men are encouraged to brag about the horrors they committed for the purpose of keeping local populations docile.
In 1998 Oppenheimer began work on a film about the attempt to organize plantation workers in Northern Sumatra; it was eventually released in 2003 as “The Globalization Tapes.” He recalls his reaction to the stifling atmosphere of fear and intimidation he experienced filming the surviving victims of the 1965 violence and their families.
“I remember feeling, ‘I will give this whatever it takes of my life,’” he says now. “I knew that I would have to give this situation whatever it takes.”
It was his own family history that motivated him to spend nearly 15 years shuttling back and forth between Indonesia and his home (first in London, now in Copenhagen), making three films about the aftermath of the massacres. “The Act of Killing” is the second film in the trilogy; the third tentatively called “The Look of Silence,” in which a family confronts the man who murdered their son, is in progress.
“My family are pretty secular [Jews],” Oppenheimer says, “but my father’s family and my stepmother’s family came from Europe. My father’s father was from Frankfurt, and he got out just in time with his family. In my stepmother’s family, a lot of people were killed [by the Nazis] in the camps.”
As a boy growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, he was raised with the idea “that the aim of all morality is to prevent human beings from doing this again,” he explains. “Never again to anybody, not just us but anybody. As I became aware of the world, both my parents were upset by the fact that mass killings just keep happening. We keep doing this again and again.”
Genocide is a subject that documentarians have explored almost continuously since the end of WWII. The overwhelming majority of such films have focused on the survivors and victims of such murders. The Indonesian situation, Oppenheimer found, made that incredibly difficult and dangerous.
The killers not only experience impunity, as the human rights groups call it, but are openly encouraged to publically recount their crimes as a way of reminding the future generations of Indonesians that they could be next.
Not surprisingly, when Oppenheimer and his crew (most of whom remain anonymous on the film’s credits) began interviewing survivors for his first film, significant pressure was brought to bear by barely disguised government forces.
That was when the light bulb went on in the filmmaker’s head. He would film the killers instead.
“I’m not a cop, I don’t have to look at people in terms of apprehension or judgment,” he says. “And this wasn’t a lure. They were open about they’d done. They would tell horrible stories, getting close to the core evil in minutes.”
That grisly openness, combined with the perpetrators’ strange search for approval in dramatic film terms, led Oppenheimer to create a film quite unlike any other, a “documentary of the imagination,” as he has called it in several interviews.
He allowed Anwar Congo, one of the most feared of the gangsters of Northern Sumatra, and his friends to create their own fantasy film, re-enacting their crimes in a variety of film genres, both as perpetrators and victims. Along the way, Oppenheimer makes it clear that the huge paramilitary movement Pancasila Youth, which gleefully embraces these men, is well connected with the current government and eager to repeat the crimes of the past.
Ironically, Congo would be unlikely to participate again. What makes “The Act of Killing” so compelling is not only Congo’s utter candor but the process of emotional and spiritual change that the crafty old man experiences over the course of the filming process.
“Anwar was the 41st [perpetrator] I’d filmed,” Oppenheimer recalls. “His pain was close to the surface. When he would talk about what he had done, the past was present and it was haunting him. When we showed him the final version of the film I was watching him on Skype and he sat there in silence and cried.”
Indonesia is a nation in which this part of the past remained buried until “The Act of Killing” brought it back to the surface in unexpected ways. Circumventing the rigid censorship of the government, Oppenheimer and his producers first screened the film privately for human rights activists, schools and journalists. One result of those screenings was a powerful investigative report that formed an entire special issue of the nation’s largest newsmagazine, Tempo.
“That set the tone for the media coverage that has followed in Indonesia,” Oppenheimer says with understandable pride.
By now the film has been screened over 500 times in the country for groups ranging in size from 30 to 700 people.
As for Oppenheimer, the process of making “The Act of Killing” and his other two films about Indonesia has been painful, “but as a Jew, this is family history for me,” he says. “That’s why I’ve given all the time to this project, 12 years when it’s all done. The messages I grew up must be connected to why I gave so much to this.”
“The Act of Killing,” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 260-7289 or go to Landmark Theatres.