A Movie’s Killers Are All Too Real
By LARRY ROHTER
Early in “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s startling new documentary about mass murder and impunity in Indonesia, a death squad leader named Anwar Congo, dapper in white pants and a lime-green shirt, demonstrates how he strangled hundreds of people with wire. It was quicker and less messy than beating them to death, he explains matter-of-factly, then breaks into a dance routine, performing the cha cha cha for the camera.
“The Act of Killing,” which opens on Friday, is crammed with unsettlingly bizarre moments like that, blending the horrific and the absurd in a disturbing cocktail. Time after time, the killers joke and brag about their deeds, which earns them applause on an Indonesian TV talk show, praise from officials in the government in power today and condemnation from the human rights groups that want to see them brought to justice.
But Mr. Oppenheimer’s film, which counts Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as its executive producers and was made by a largely Indonesian crew, is also stirring controversy because of its unorthodox form. Re-enactments are always a source of disagreement in the documentary world, but Mr. Oppenheimer has taken that longstanding debate to a new level by encouraging the perpetrators of human rights abuses to restage their crimes, on film and for a global audience.
“I think it’s our obligation as filmmakers, as people investigating the world, to create the reality that is most insightful to the issues at hand,” Mr. Oppenheimer, 38, said in a recent interview. “Here are human beings, like us, boasting about atrocities that should be unimaginable. And the question is: Why are they doing this? For whom are they doing this? What does it mean to them? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? And this method was a way of answering those questions.”
The events initially addressed in “The Act of Killing” are little known in the West: the slaughter of as many as a million people in Indonesia following the military’s seizure of power there in 1965. The victims were labeled Communists but included labor leaders, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, with paramilitary groups carrying out the killings at the behest of the Indonesian Army and with the support of the United States and its allies, who worried that Indonesia, like Vietnam, would fall into Communist hands.
In Indonesia, the killings were “a kind of open secret, kept discreetly hidden so that if you wanted to, you could pretend it wasn’t happening,” said John Roosa, a scholar of Indonesian history at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Pretext for Mass Murder,” the leading book about the 1965 massacres. “So this film has become a provocation, an impetus for Indonesians to go back to the perpetrators and say, ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’ ”
Organized killings occurred all across Indonesia, the world’s fourth most-populous country, but Mr. Oppenheimer focuses on Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra. There a group of so-called “movie gangsters,” fans of John Wayne and Marlon Brando, as well as of mafia and American B-movies, did much of the killing, inspired in part by the films they loved.
Mr. Congo, the focus of the documentary, tells of seeing an Elvis Presley movie, then skipping across the street, “still in the mood of the film,” to the roof of the building where he would garrote his victims. “It was like we were killing happily,” he tells Mr. Oppenheimer.
Born in Texas, educated at Harvard and now based in Europe, Mr. Oppenheimer is a constant presence in “The Act of Killing,” always outside the frame but asking questions of the killers in their native tongue, which he picked up working on films like “The Globalisation Tapes,” and being addressed by them. He said the decision to stage the re-enactments emerged as a logical extension of his initial interviews with some 40 death squad members. They had a natural theatricality, he said, which led him to offer to underwrite and film their re-enactments of their deeds. The killers did not get a salary but were paid what Mr. Oppenheimer called a “modest per diem” (approved by the University of Westminster and the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, which financed the re-enactments).
“Within minutes of meeting me, they would tell me horrible stories, often boastfully, and would say, ‘How about if we go to the place where I killed people, and I will show you how I did it?’ ” he recalled. “And then they would often lament afterwards, ‘Oh I should have brought a machete along to use as a prop,’ or ‘I should have brought friends along who could play victims, it would have been more cool that way.’ ”
Given free rein, the death squad members molded their performances to fit their favorite film genres. One scene was staged as a western, with Mr. Congo and his comically portly sidekick, Herman Koto, wearing cowboy hats, while others were done as film noir or horror. (In a critic’s notebook, A. O. Scott of The Times wrote that the film “destabilizes our sense of the boundary between make-believe violence and its real-world counterpart.”)
There is even one exceedingly peculiar musical scene, with female dancers gyrating by a waterfall, as “Born Free” plays on the soundtrack and one of Mr. Congo’s victims gratefully places a medal around his killer’s neck, saying, “For executing me and sending me to heaven, I thank you a thousand times.” When Mr. Oppenheimer showed that sequence to Mr. Herzog on his laptop over breakfast at a London hotel, Mr. Herzog immediately decided he wanted to become involved in the film.
“Joshua Oppenheimer is not the inventor of the casual and unbelievable surrealism that seeps into this film from all corners,” he said. “It does not come from him, it is not imposed by him. You watch this, and you know that in a way, it’s real. And yet you cannot believe that reality can take forms as crazy and weird as that.”
Without the staged scenes, “you would end up with a self-righteous, mediocre film you would see on television, a regular issues film, and I say that with venom,” Mr. Herzog continued. “These are precisely the scenes that would be cut” in a conventional documentary.
But those same scenes made the film a hard sell, even to producers and foundations accustomed to difficult material. “No one would fund the re-enactments because either it seemed morally suspect or they seemed impossible,” Mr. Oppenheimer recalled. “One commissioning editor said, ‘I don’t want my strand awash with atrocity.’ I’ll never forget that.”
The questioning has continued at showings of “The Act of Killing” on the international festival circuit. In Berlin, one audience member suggested that what Mr. Oppenheimer had done was “like having SS officers re-enact the Holocaust,” to which he said he replied that “it isn’t, because the Nazis are no longer in power,” whereas the Indonesian death squad members still serve and enjoy the protection of the state.
More than a score of the film’s Indonesian crew members, out of fear of retribution, asked to remain anonymous in the credits. Among them was the co-director, a 41-year-old from a literary family, who spoke by phone from his home in central Java of the personal challenge of the production, which took nearly a decade.
“The most difficult part was to keep your feelings to yourself,” he said. “You feel annoyed, angry. How could these people tell these horrible stories so lightly and so proudly? You just want to challenge them right away. But you have to keep telling yourself to be patient, to let them tell the story the way they like. Because then we can learn something about the whole system of destruction.” Mr. Oppenheimer is working on a follow-up about the victims and their families, who have been harassed or threatened when they speak out.
Initially, Mr. Congo seems an utterly unsympathetic figure, vain and egotistic. Eventually, though, the re-enactments appear to lead Mr. Congo to some sort of remorse and moral awakening.
Or maybe the remorse isn’t genuine. Perhaps it’s just another performance for the camera. After all, Mr. Oppenheimer acknowledged, the title “The Act of Killing” carries a double meaning, referring both to the murders in 1965 and the later performances for the camera. Mr. Congo even reminds himself “my acting must be violent.”
In view of all those issues, it seems pertinent to ask if “The Act of Killing” is a documentary at all. Mr. Morris, who has thought and written about the subject at considerable length, has no doubts.
“Of course it’s a documentary,” he said. “Documentary is not about form, a set of rules that are either followed or not, it’s an investigation into the nature of the real world, into what people thought and why they thought what they thought.”
But Mr. Oppenheimer offered a more nuanced view. He distinguishes between the observational style of the film’s first half and what comes after it pivots to the re-enactments.
“I think it almost stops being a documentary altogether,” he said. “It becomes a kind of hallucinatory aria, a kind of fever dream.” At that point, he added, the film “transcends documentary” and becomes a strange hybrid creation.
But no matter what you call it, Mr. Morris said “The Act of Killing” was a work of art. Prefacing his remarks by saying, “I think I can speak independently of my role as executive producer, because I have no financial interest in this film,” he continued: “The most you can ask from art, really good art, maybe great art, is that it makes you think, it makes you ask questions, makes you wonder about how we know things, how we experience history and know who we are. And there are so many amazing moments like that here.”