Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing

By Blair McClendonAugust 14, 2013

Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing

IN JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER’S NEW FILM, The Act of Killing, a mass murderer dances the cha-cha on the site where he beat or strangled roughly 1,000 people to death. It is a film without precedent. Its horror resides not merely in the vastness of genocide, but in these small acts of aggression that power and impunity afford. The Act of Killing follows a handful of boastful former death squad leaders in Indonesia who decide to reenact their contributions to the regime of terror ushered in by General Suharto’s coup. In the context of the documentary, their movie becomes a fictionalized testament to their own brutality.

It does not take particularly fine brushwork to paint killers as subhuman villains. However, Oppenheimer is more interested in portraiture than caricature and his intellectual genealogy seems to draw more on Hannah Arendt than simple propaganda. Since Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, it has become commonplace for critics to acknowledge that the eruptions of systemic violence in human history are not in fact anomalies. Nevertheless, to speak the language of politics is often to speak in terms of norms and perversions. “You are either with us or against us” is a phrase whose bluster is critiqued, but it still encapsulates a great deal of the thinking that undergirds mass violence. Oppenheimer’s film takes the banality of evil seriously and forces the audience to recognize that the horrors of the last century were only the latest in a series of atrocities.

Moreover, the documentary demands a recognition of the humanity that is, in fact, present in our most inhumane acts. The Act of Killing is a brilliant and difficult film, not because it might inform us about a little-discussed topic, but because it tells us what we know to be true. Blood is shed every day; killers are not anthropomorphized wolves huffing and puffing, but humans doing no more than they see fit.

Throughout the film, former killers provide a false etymology of the word “gangster,” saying that in English it means “free man.” Although they are in fact conflating a Dutch and English lineage, the idea, for them, remains true. The particular brand of evil these men are responsible for is less notable than the impunity they enjoy. It is because they do not have to fear for their own freedom that they can fight a war against a “reversal” of history. It is a fight that viewers around the world will recognize at a time when politicians contest the writing of certain stories, all the while nurturing their own legacies. The killers of the film do not fear retribution, because they know that societies across the world are constantly struggling with these kinds of “free men.” In the face of false political boundaries with catastrophic consequences, The Act of Killing is a challenge to recover the imagination and dig deep into the spaces where histories are being erased and papered over.


Blair McClendon: Some political leaders have a tendency to appeal to history as the true determinant of their legacy while promoting directly harmful policies like torture and indefinite detention. You wrote, “That such narratives would be believed despite all evidence to the contrary suggests a failure of our collective imagination.” Could you expand a little bit on the idea of imagination and how it figures into The Act of Killing?

Josh Oppenheimer: Well, I think the film, The Act of Killing, is a work that tries to show how we as human beings create our world through storytelling and how, as a crucial part of that, we use storytelling to justify our actions and above all to escape from our most bitter and painful truths. So, you have a society in which anywhere from half a million to two and a half million people were killed and a whole normality was built atop mass graves. A regime of fear was based on the celebration of mass killing as something heroic. For that normality to function, the perpetrators have to be telling themselves stories so they can live with themselves. They have to be exploiting their victims so that the victims are too afraid to challenge their version of the events. Then that justification of atrocity demands the committing of further evil in the sense that, most dramatically, if I’ve killed somebody — if I’ve killed a bunch of people and gotten away with it and the government has justified it and celebrated it, and maybe I’m haunted by it, maybe I suffer from it, but I’m desperately trying to cling to the notion that what I’ve done is right — if the government says, “Now kill this other group of people for the same reason,” I have to do it, because otherwise I’m admitting that it was wrong the first time.

So, what one of the things we start to see in The Act of Killing is that the justification, even the celebration, of mass killing is not what it appears at first in the film — which is a sign these men lack any remorse — but actually the opposite. They know what they did was wrong and it’s a defensive assertion that it was right, so that they can live with themselves. So, underneath the kind of surface normality are all these stories we tell ourselves to make us who we are. The film places the men in the film, these death squad leaders, but also a whole political regime, through a kind of prism. All of the secondhand, third-rate fantasies that these men cling to in order to live with themselves — they’re often mutually contradictory, one leads to another. These become visible and they become visible precisely in the reenactments that these men create.

We as viewers outside the country, outside of Indonesia, in fact we know we are much closer to perpetrators than we like to think. We know that even though in some way we may be victims of political systems, we’re also perpetrators. We know that every article of clothing touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. We know that all of them are working in places where there has been mass political violence, be it China or Indonesia. Where perpetrators have won, have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are not only killing themselves, are poisoning themselves in the process, but also unable to get the struggle of the human cost of everything we buy incorporated in the price tag we pay. That is to say we depend on the reality you see in The Act of Killing for our everyday living, which is to say also that this is not some distant reality on the other side of the world that is interesting to see how human beings have built this kind of upside down wonderland where black is white and white is black, good is evil and evil’s good. But rather, this is the underbelly of our reality.

I think in the United States viewers feel this pretty readily, because quite a lot of this exploitation and this history is right here at home. One of the killers in The Act of Killing points this out. The United States is founded on the twin holocausts of the Native American genocide and slavery and then more than a hundred years of apartheid, segregation and an ongoing system of economic apartheid. We have enough of this exploitation right here at home to know that the glimmering shopping malls, the palaces to consumerism are somehow predicated, built upon violence — and the film shows that very palpably by putting Indonesia through this cinematic prism.

BM: In the scene you just mentioned, you tell one of the killers that he is guilty of war crimes. But he turns the question around and asks, “What about all the things America has done without being punished?” It seems like that moment is teased out by your questioning. What I was least expecting in this film was this continual auto-critique that goes on, particularly where you show the reenactments of torture to the torturers. Was this process always intended to be included in the film?

JO: It was there from pretty much the beginning. I started this film in collaboration with a community of survivors and they would send me on these missions to film perpetrators who they thought had killed their relatives to find out how their relatives had died or even if they had died. For all they knew these people were taken away and never came back. They felt guilty grieving them, because they never had proof that they died. So, they would send me out and say, “Can you talk to him? Maybe he knows how my son was killed.” I would go and indeed they would know. These men would tell me how their son was killed. So, I started filming the perpetrators: they were boastful, they were open. Meanwhile, the survivors were oppressed and silenced. I had this feeling that I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. I felt that this was an incredibly grave, but not extraordinary, situation that demanded everything I could give to it. I would film these perpetrators boasting. They would tell me how they killed, they would show me how they killed. They would then invite me to the places where they killed and they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed.

The very first time I filmed the main character of the film, Anwar, he takes me up to a rooftop, he shows how he killed with wire, because it was less bloody than beating people to death. Then he starts dancing the cha-cha-cha where he killed. He actually says he was a good dancer because he was trying to forget what happened on that rooftop and was going out living the life of a playboy: dancing, drinking, and so forth. So his conscience is there from the beginning. But to dance the cha-cha-cha where you’ve killed a thousand people — this actually involves a total denial of the moral meaning of what you’ve done, otherwise you couldn’t do that. Obviously it’s a symptom of impunity, in that if he had been arrested for what he’s done or accused for what he’s done, he would know that it’s inappropriate to dance there. So I would screen footage back to people to see if they could recognize themselves in the mirror of the movie, exactly like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

You could say the filmmaking process was like giving someone a chance to paint their portrait, giving an individual and a collective, this right-wing paramilitary movement that helps Anwar make his film. They paint a little, they step back from the canvas, they look, they go back, they paint some more, they step and they look. Anwar says at one point he’s trying to make a beautiful family movie about mass killing. He realizes at some point that the portrait cannot be at once beautiful and true. Anwar, and I think this is telling, decides to continue painting a true portrait, not a beautiful portrait. There’s a certain amount of courage and honesty there. I think it relates to the fact that he’s somehow trying to deal with his pain. He’s haunted every night by these nightmares of what he’s done. The filmmaking process is almost his attempt to build up a kind of psyche, a kind of cinematic scar tissue around this trauma. It isn’t enough to just make a beautiful, heroic film. He has to address the killings. It has to be not just a beautiful, family movie, but a beautiful family movie about mass killing. That’s the wound that he’s trying to deal with. This method determined the whole process in that I would not plan three scenes ahead. I would plan one scene, we would shoot the scene, we’d watch the scene and we’d talk about what does he want to do next.

BM: But, taking this film outside of Indonesia, how did you feel that it has been received, insofar as it has made a motion to view the perpetrators as people rather than caricatures of evil incarnate?

JO: I think that is the litmus test. That is the dividing line for audiences in my view. I think the big question is whether people have, for lack of a better word, the courage. I don’t blame people who don’t, but whether people have the courage to see a small part of themselves in Anwar. I can read a review of the film and I can know immediately, “Ah, this person liked the film, found it interesting, found it fascinating because it’s a unique method, but did not for a second see these men as anything other than psychopaths.” I think it is the dividing line. Around the world, it very much depends on the percentage of the audience, if you like, that’s willing to see him or herself in Anwar. It does very much relate to that country’s history, I think, without being reductive about it. If there’s a line that holds this film together it’s the evolution of Anwar’s doubt, usually in his facial expressions. If you look at his face, you see a big change. I think, because he’s a human being and the audience is human beings, I’ve been really very gratified by how willing people are to accept him within the fold of the human community and thereby see themselves as much closer to perpetrators than we would normally wish to see ourselves.

BM: There is sort of an obsession in their language with history. One of the killers says, “This isn’t going to be a problem for us. It’s going to be a problem for history.” The governor of North Sumatra similarly states, “The problem is these Communists are trying to reverse history.” The real problem is that this history will be recorded. How do you see this film as an intervention in the problem of history?

JO: Absolutely, it is precisely an intervention into that. The stories we tell about the past are instruments. They allow us to justify. They allow a whole regime to justify what it’s done and they become tools for exploiting the victims and robbing from them, stealing from them, keeping them oppressed, stealing their land when you want to, keeping people so afraid you can have goons and gangsters to break strikes. The film shows the material power of storytelling and is an intervention into the dominant story that’s been told in Indonesia. The film has come to Indonesia creating this space for everybody to see and say what they already know. Suddenly the Indonesian media, having seen the film, are writing, producing in-depth reports about the genocide, essentially turning the history on its ahead. It’s exactly what the men in the film are afraid of. How are they supposed to live with themselves? More importantly, in the case of the governor and these high-ranking politicians, how are they supposed to continue to use gangsters with impunity if this whole system is exposed and people are no longer too afraid to say this is wrong and unacceptable? The key is that the big enemy is fear.

The point of intervention is to give people the space to say courageously what they have been too afraid to say. So that people can start to organize, so that people can start to demand, to say, “We need a presidential apology. We need a truth commission. We need tribunals for the leaders of this. We need justice. We need political movements: against corruption in politics, against the use of gangsters in politics and by big businesses, for the redistribution of the nation’s wealth from these perpetrators who’ve obtained it through terror to the millions and millions of people who’ve been systematically impoverished because of decades of political apartheid.” I think we need similar interventions here, too.

BM: Here you’ve described it as sort of the springboard, but do you think there are any limits to how cinema can function politically?

JO: Yeah. Of course, this film is not a campaigning film: it does not have a clear-cut call to action. I think the function of art is to show people what they know, but have been too afraid to say. It can be they’re too afraid politically, because they’ve been oppressed, or it can be that they’re too afraid because what it shows about who we are is too frightening. The functioning of art is to do that. I think then you need movements, you need activism, and you need people who are liberated because they have finally been able to say what they’ve been too afraid to say. Having thus been liberated from their fear, then they can come together and take the next steps. A film can’t change Indonesia. A film can just create a space for Indonesians to change Indonesia.


LARB Contributor

Blair McClendon is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He lives in Brooklyn.


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