Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing

By Adam Nayman

Like most other documentaries about people who are certifiably insane, The Act of Killing raises questions about the exploitation of its subjects. Namely: Is it even possible to exploit men who freely and in some cases gleefully admit to the torture, rape, and murder of untold scores of their countrymen? And also: Why would these people not only want to speak about their guilt but also participate in a film that restages their crimes with them in the starring roles?

That Werner Herzog and Errol Morris became executive producers after the fact gives some hints about how to try to process The Act of Killing, which stands as one of the most dizzying recent achievements in non-fiction cinema. Caricaturist cum muckraker Morris must have responded to the way that Danish-American director Joshua Oppenheimer (working with long-time collaborator Christine Cynn and a collective of indigenous technicians and support players under the catch-all designation of “Anonymous”) reveals the unfathomable strangeness and savagery of wizened former Indonesian paramilitaries simply by putting them in front of a camera. Herzog likely appreciated the ecstatic truthiness and undeniably Little Dieter-ish ways in which the re-enactments—several of which are contrived to resemble the Hollywood genre films that the genocidaires embraced in their youth—at once stylize and subsume the reality of their real-world referents, the mid-’60s purges of communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals that claimed one million lives and ushered in a period of American-supported military dictatorship.

It is arguable, however, that neither of these venerated directors has made a film quite this unnerving. But then neither has ever tackled a country whose modern history was written by the winners, in blood and in broad daylight. At times, The Act of Killing seems to be unfolding in a parallel, science-fictional universe where self-described thugs are celebrated on talk shows as cultural warriors and keepers of the flame, and their audiences—and their family members—don’t bat an eye. (The relatives of victims, meanwhile, are too scared to say anything.) The discombobulating quality is heightened by the re-enactments, which were written, directed, and acted by the film’s subjects, self-erected monuments to their perceived righteousness and ruthlessness. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, exhibits patience, guile, opportunism, and, above all, an iron-stomached curiosity about where his subjects’ artistic whims and HD-sharp memories will take them (and him) next. The pathologies on display are, to say the least, unique. For all the movies that have been made about murderers (and mass murderers), it’s hard to recall one where the participants were freely hanging out in restaurants or tooling around in the streets in convertibles. Usually, killers are shot in the confines of a prison cell or with their features and voices blurred out. Oppenheimer claims that there was very little coercion involved in getting the men in The Act of Killing to talk about whom they were and what they’d done, and as a result the film has a startlingly casual tone. (One wonders if the 159-minute cut, which won the main prize in November at CPH:DOX is quite so brisk; Oppenheimer denies the rumours of an even longer cut.)

The director has been adamant in interviews that his nominal “star,” Anwar Congo, who commanded a notorious North Sumatran death squad and whose accounts of his activities more than speak for themselves, should not be seen as a scapegoat for crimes that were also committed by thousands of other people. But Anwar is still very much the face of the film: grey-haired and grinning at the outset, but considerably more haggard as the years pass (the film took nearly a decade to produce) and as his encounters with his own past grow more intimate and specific. As such, he could easily be seen as a grotesque—and when he’s made up as a cowboy or a corpse, that’s exactly what he is—and yet Oppenheimer on the whole does a remarkable job of observing and interacting with him as a subject and a kind of creative collaborator. It’s a dynamic that leans on the director’s status as a white, Western outsider. Whether Anwar and the others are studiedly oblivious to the idea that Oppenheimer’s audience will judge them to be abhorrent or still in thrall to the hysterical mid-’60s propaganda that insisted that systematic extermination was an act of heroism, they obviously enjoy the chance to go on the record to somebody who’ll take his findings outside Indonesia’s borders.

This subject/star dichotomy brings us back to the question of exploitation. Are these men in their right minds? And if not, well, what exactly are we watching? I’d venture that what makes The Act of Killing valid instead of merely visceral is the way that Oppenheimer gets at the notion of guilt. Guilt here is not something to be coaxed out—the journalist’s imperative—but rather a structuring absence. It colours the wretched spectrum of impulses—pride, wrath, lust…basically all of the deadly sins—that underscore the killers’ re-enactments; it suffuses the scene in which a man who strangled others to death with wire replays the scenario from the victim’s chair; it stares through the eyes of the makeshift ghost constructed to represent Anwar’s nightmares; and it hangs over Anwar as he watches scenes from his own private hand-crafted spectacle on TV with his grandchildren, cueing them to see how sad it is while reminding them—and himself—that it’s only a movie, after all.

Cinema Scope: Who initially approached whom?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I had been working in a community of survivors outside of Medan. It’s a plantation region where there was a group of workers struggling to organize a union in the aftermath of the dictatorship. This was, I believe, ten years ago. There was a chemical that was being sprayed on palm trees that was destroying their livers. They were too scared to form a union to fight this. And the reason for this was because they were survivors of genocide, and their parents, their aunts, uncles, grandparents, had been killed or imprisoned for being in a plantation workers’ union that had been very strong back in 1965. It had been accused of being pro-communist. Their relatives were killed. This was a history that they were scared to discuss because they thought that the killers would see them talking to foreigners in an attempt to expose what they had done. So we discussed the idea of how to tell the story, we made clandestine visits to these places that were supposedly mass graves…but it wasn’t terribly compelling footage. So they said, “You know, the other thing that you can do is film the killers.”

Scope: This was their suggestion?

Oppenheimer: I had been living in this community for two or three months, so I was close to the people there. And I said, “Where would I find them?” My friend told me that the person who was living next to me had killed his aunt. And two houses down, another friend explained to me, lived the person who had killed his father.

Scope: What was their tone like when they said these things?

Oppenheimer: In this case, because people were coming together to organize a union, and because working with me was sort of catalyzing those efforts, there was an excitement and a nervousness. There wasn’t resignation because they were now taking steps to change things. They were scared, and they were excited. They saw me as someone who could expose what happened. You could say that The Act of Killing was made with me as the willing tool for the survivors across Indonesia. That was part of it. I also had motives as a filmmaker, and ideas about cinema and history. Anyway, the next day I took my camera and I went to the house of this person who had killed my friend’s aunt and I pretended that I was filming village life: children coming home with goats in the afternoon. I was hoping that he would come out of his house and be curious and come talk to me. He asked me who I was and vice versa, and I asked him what his job was. He told me that he’d become the manager of the plantation because in 1965 he had been drowning hundreds of members of the plantation union. That was his preferred method. I recorded him describing this and showing me in his living room how he did it with some astonishment, not least of all because his nine-year-old granddaughter was sitting in the living room, bored, as if she’d heard it before.

Scope: These developments obviously must have changed the direction of the movie you were making…

Oppenheimer: I realized that the question in the film could not be, “What happened in 1965?” Here was this story that wasn’t about then, but the way that the killers in the present enjoy impunity and are able to boast about what they did. I didn’t have to say that I thought what they did was great. They assumed because I was an American and because the US supported the military dictatorship and the repressive actions in East Timor and other things, that I was on their side. All I had to do to build trust was to be friendly and non-judgmental. Quickly I learned a word like “extermination,” which to us evokes the Holocaust, had a heroic flavour. I felt as if I had stumbled into a place where a genocide has been committed, the killers had won, had never been held to account, and then celebrated what they did ever since. Was it to intimidate the survivors? To impress the rest of the world? To ease their consciences? There were all these questions about how they imagined themselves. What was evident was that there had been a colossal miscarriage of the collective imagination.

Scope: Even without the re-enactments, the film is extremely surreal.

Oppenheimer: My first feeling, as somebody who lost a lot of family in the Holocaust, was that it was as if I had walked into Germany and the Nazis had won and former SS officers were discussing the deaths of the Jews as if it was something fantastic. I then started to think about whether the things that had happened in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Germany, where history has determined that they were wrong, what if those situations were the exception rather than the rule? As Adi points out in the film, has anyone has ever been held to account for what happened to the Native Americans?

Scope: I think it’s fair to say, though, that that comparison is a case of very different countries with very different histories…

Oppenheimer: Until 2008, the highest officials in the US were not just enjoying impunity for torture but they were publicly celebrated for it. Now we have a situation where Obama is the first Democrat since Harry Truman not to be vulnerable on national security. We can say it’s because he’s tough on national security but another way of looking at it is that his policies—detention, disappearance, suspension of habeas corpus, drone strikes—are hugely popular. That somehow implicates all of us and I think we know it. We know that violence is popular. A few years ago we were celebrating a kind of self-righteous policy of torture. Jack Bauer is popular and seen as a hero.

Scope: So you’d say that people take their cues from Hollywood? That ties into one of the major points of the film, which is the way that the killers talk about drawing inspiration from the movies and stars they loved as young men—getting excited by Brando or Pacino or Elvis.

Oppenheimer: I think Hollywood does export violence, and its power and entertainment depends on our enjoyment of violence, but Hollywood doesn’t make killers. For the three years that I was filming before I met Anwar I met plenty of people who didn’t see movies before they killed people. They were perfectly capable of cutting people’s heads off and going home to sleep at night. As I filmed more and more killers, I felt that what they had in common was selfishness, vanity, greed, these deadly sins, but we all have that. We also hopefully have mechanisms to check that stuff. What’s so disturbing about the film is that we realize that as these men did these horrible things, they’re still human. People have said they’re monsters or psychopaths, and those are just words that we use to distance “them” from “us.”

Scope: I will try another word on you: insanity. Whatever their mental state was when they did what they did, I think it’s clear that by now, something has been irreparably broken. These men are so obviously guilty, but it’s like the mechanism on how to process that is just misfiring.

Oppenheimer: It’s an interesting point that you make. It means that we’re on the terrain of R.D. Laing and Deleuze and Guattari, who argue for a kind of social insanity. But if we say it’s insanity we have to be clear to say that an economic system where greed is vaunted as a virtue and restrictions on greed will hamper our progress is an insane system. It’s insane and it’s suicidal. I felt that I was encountering an insane reality. The first time I filmed a killer taking me to where he killed someone, he took me to a river and did this sickening re-enactment of the killing of a friend of mine’s son. I kept my nerve while filming. He asked me if he could pose for some snapshots with his friend from the death squad, thumbs up, “V for Victory,” where they had killed 10,000 people in the course of a month. That was in February 2004. In April 2004 I saw people from my own country standing in front of people who were humiliated or tortured or in one case had been killed, making the same gestures. The fact that this would be considered an acceptable way to commemorate torture…this kind of collective, politically produced insanity is what the film is trying to explore.

Scope: Speaking of image-making, I think that what’s most audacious about your film is that the re-enactments—of the clandestine murders and also the big massacre of the village—now come to stand in as a sort of official visual record of an under-recognized genocide.

Oppenheimer: When we filmed the massacre scene, I was talking to my cinematographer and we were trying to just figure out how to do it so that it didn’t look stupid. It was technically difficult to shoot. You have choreographed fights, pyrotechnics, and extras. We thought, “What are we striving for here?” If they just go for it, rip the village apart, it’ll look fake. What was in my head was that here we had the opportunity to make the iconic image of a genocide that nobody remembers. Would we fake archive footage? My thought was no. Instead, we should go for footage like in a ’70s or ’80s war movie. I had a hunch that in doing that most viewers would think it looks like archival footage because our notion of what the past looks like comes from movies, just like Anwar’s notion of killing people does. Anwar was acting when he was killing people. I knew that there was something perverse in that impulse to create an iconic image, like the photo of the gates at Birkenau in Shoah (1985), and that the style of that icon should come from Hollywood genre films. Just as I was implicated in wanting to do that, the viewer would be implicated in receiving that. So we did two things to resist the perversity. We deconstructed it, with footage of us yelling, “Cut, cut, cut.” In the fire scene, instead of using grandiose master shots, we use these wobbly images, and we take the sound out, it’s almost silent, save a strange sound of an insect on the soundtrack. It takes over the sound of screaming and then fades into the sound of Anwar’s breathing. That language came out of our effort to resist a generic icon and the moral responsibility to create an icon of tremendous force that will sear in the consciousness of the viewer. Spielberg stops there with Schindler’s List (1993), but we can’t stop there.

Scope: You see the leader of the paramilitary group experiencing a similar moment, actually, trying to measure the distance between what his outfit actually stands for and how they’re going to present themselves onscreen. It’s a kind of image management.

Oppenheimer: That’s right. It was a fantastic moment, an extraordinary moment. Adi Zulkadry says it when he thinks I’m not filming. He uses an opportunity when I’m not paying attention to say that if we succeed in making this scene it will turn history on its head. At the same time, the deputy minister of “thugs”—that’s what he is, they call it “youth” but that’s a euphemism for “thugs”—he realizes that his job depends on being feared. He doesn’t want to look too bad or he could lose his job, but he doesn’t want to look too good either.

Scope: He’s of two minds, then. A lot of the characters in the film seem similarly preoccupied with double-edged thoughts: every boast is laced with guilt, even if they don’t ever say that they feel guilty. And it’s not as if anybody there has told them that they should feel that way…

Oppenheimer: It’s interesting how present their guilt is yet they have no language for it. The first provocation to me, which was devastating to me, was to film him dancing the cha-cha where he killed hundreds of people. He says he dances because he wants to forget; he takes drugs because he wants to forget. So the guilt is there at the scene of the crime. He goes back to the cinema to show us how he did it, and says that he used to walk out of the movies like a gangster who walked off the screen. This line isn’t in the film, but he says that if he and his friends saw an Elvis movie they’d be transported and walk across the road and kill happily. What he’s borrowing from the movie is a kind of psychic distancing. When you act and perform there’s an imagined spectatorship; you’re being watched by the public. Elvis has his fans, and you have your fans. Also embedded in there is trauma, because why does he have to be someone else? Why can’t he be present as himself in the moment of taking a life? Because it’s devastating to him. It destroys him. When they’re re-enacting…it was hard to be a part of. I felt tainted, I felt dirty, I felt like I was creating the killings. When they start re-enacting, this extraordinary thing happened where they entered a similar mode of performance that they were in when they were doing the killings. So the past was alive in the present in a way that mirrors how this traumatic past is collectively alive in the Indonesian present. It was horrible to behold.

Scope: You were with these men for how long?

Oppenheimer: I started filming with Anwar seven years ago.

Scope: Do you care about them?

Oppenheimer: I do. Especially about Anwar and Herman. I will try to ensure that Anwar isn’t scapegoated for this. He is one of 10,000 killers in Indonesia. He wasn’t a nobody: he was the head of a notorious killing squad. He’s a leader in a paramilitary organization, but he shouldn’t be scapegoated as the face of a genocide. If only Anwar is arrested, that would be horrible.

Scope: Do you think that you could ever see him again, if it was in a different context?

Oppenheimer: No, I don’t think so. But over the last few weeks, I’ve talked to him all the time, trying to talk about what the film means, how it’s being received. He may know things about the film, but he still had to function in the world and get up and live with himself. He has to hang out with the other gangsters. It’s to get money. That’s his circle, that’s his context, that’s his world. I’ve had to remind him, I’ve had to say, “Look Anwar, remember what we filmed, that scene on the roof? Remember that scene where you’re watching the gangster film where you played a victim with your grandchildren?” They’re pure psychic shields. He’s telling them it’s OK, that it’s just a movie. It’s sad. He’s watching that scene with his grandchildren, who are a projection, a part of himself. He’s talking to himself.