When the credits begin to roll at the end of his controversial documentary “The Act of Killing,” it is evident filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has hit a nerve. In all, 49 members of his crew – most of whom are Indonesian – are credited as “Anonymous.” From line producers to makeup artists to editing assistants, these men and women – some of whom spent nearly a decade working on the project – decided attaching their name to something as contentious as the film – while important for the people of their country to see – could also put their lives in incredible danger.
“The political situation in Indonesia is such that it’s not safe to be publicly associated with this film,” Oppenheimer, 38, told me during a phone interview a few weeks ago. “To be known as someone who made the film could get you killed by the paramilitary movement or by military intelligence.”
In “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer, who is currently based in London, England, revisits the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 from the perspective of some of the men involved in the mass murders. During these two violent years, an estimated 1-3 million suspected communists are believed to have been massacred at the hands of anti-communist death squads working for the Indonesian Army. One of these death squad members, Anwar Congo, is said to have single-handedly killed 1,000 men, women and children.
After meeting a number of paramilitary leaders across North Sumatra and asking them to take him to locations where they killed people and also demonstrate the killings, Oppenheimer said Anwar – the 41st “perpetrator” he met – took the assignment in a “surreal direction” by reenacting the murders in the genres of his favorite American movies, including gangster films like “Scarface” and “The Godfather,” and even as Carmen-Miranda-style musicals. Soon, Oppenheimer’s idea for the documentary began to shift. The focus turned more on the killers and their willingness to talk about the crimes they had committed and revealed the men’s state of mind as they relived the brutality they inflicted.
“I wanted to find out why these men were so boastful about what they did,” Oppenheimer said. “How did they want to be seen? How did they see themselves? They each participated in one of the biggest mass killings in human history. Their lives have been shaped by it. I wanted to know what [those killings] meant to them.”
What Oppenheimer found when he offered a platform to Anwar and others was a candidness that horrified him to his core. The stories he heard during the decade it took to shoot the film, he said, sunk in gradually and have affected his life traumatically over the years. Still, Oppenheimer knew if he wanted to tap into the psyche of these men, he needed to treat them like human beings and allow himself to grow close to them.
“Allowing myself to become close to Anwar meant I was vulnerable to him in a way,” Oppenheimer said. “I was very upset the first time I filmed him. His reenactments gave me nightmares. I suffered from insomnia. This went on for months. But I didn’t think it was possible to make an honest film about another human being unless I let myself become that close.”
In doing so, Oppenheimer captures Anwar’s genuine reaction as he looks back on the unimaginable things he did nearly 50 years prior. It was a process, Oppenheimer said, Anwar understood from the very beginning and recognized how it was evolving as more and more footage was shot.
“Every time he saw himself in a scene, he looked disturbed,” Oppenheimer said. “But he would never dare admit why he was disturbed because to do so would’ve meant he was admitting what he did was wrong. These men have never had to apologize for anything. I think eventually he realized no amount of reenactments could dispel the horror of what he had done.”