The Act of Killing

PBS Premiere: Oct. 6, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement


In February 2004, I filmed a former death squad leader demonstrating how, in less than three months, he and his fellow killers slaughtered 10,500 alleged communists in a single clearing by a river in North Sumatra. When he was finished with his explanation, he asked my sound recordist to take some snapshots of us together by the riverbank. He smiled broadly, gave a thumbs up in one photo, a victory sign in the next.

Two months later, other photos, this time of American soldiers smiling and giving the thumbs up while torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, appeared in the news (Errol Morris later revealed these photographs to be more complex than they at first appear). The most unsettling thing about these images is not the violence they document, but rather what they suggest to us about how their participants wanted, in that moment, to be seen. And how they thought, in that moment, they would want to remember themselves. Moreover, performing, acting and posing appear to be part of the procedures of humiliation.

These photographs betray not so much the physical situation of abuse, but rather forensic evidence of the imagination involved in persecution. And they were very much in my mind when, one year later, I met Anwar Congo and the other leaders of Indonesia's Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement.

Far away or close to home?

The differences between the situations I was filming in Indonesia and other situations of mass persecution may at first seem obvious. Unlike in Rwanda, South Africa or Germany, in Indonesia there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, no memorials for victims. Instead, ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honored as national heroes by a docile (and often terrified) public. But is this situation really so exceptional? At home (in the USA), the champions of torture, disappearance and indefinite detention were in the highest positions of political power and, at the same time, busily tending to their legacy as the heroic saviors of western civilization. That such narratives would be believed (despite all evidence to the contrary) suggests a failure of our collective imagination, while simultaneously revealing the power of storytelling in shaping how we see.

And that Anwar and his friends so admired American movies, American music, American clothing -- all of this made the echoes more difficult to ignore, transforming what I was filming into a nightmarish allegory.

Filming with survivors

When I began developing The Act of Killing in 2005, I had already been filming for three years with survivors of the 1965-66 massacres. I had lived for a year in a village of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan. I had become very close to several of the families there. During that time, Christine Cynn and I collaborated with a fledgling plantation workers' union to make The Globalization Tapes, and began production on a forthcoming film about a family of survivors that begins to confront (with tremendous dignity and patience) the killers who murdered their son. Our efforts to record the survivors' experiences -- never before expressed publicly -- took place in the shadow of their torturers, as well as the executioners who murdered their relatives -- men who, like Anwar Congo, would boast about what they did.

Ironically, we faced the greatest danger when filming survivors. We'd encounter obstacle after obstacle. For instance, when we tried to film a scene in which former political prisoners rehearsed a Javanese ballad about their time in the concentration camps (describing how they provided forced labor for a British-owned plantation, and how every night some of their friends would be handed over to the death squads to be killed), we were interrupted by police seeking to arrest us. At other times, the management of London-Sumatra plantations interrupted the film's shooting, "honoring" us by "inviting" us to a meeting at plantation headquarters. Or the village mayor would arrive with a military escort to tell us we didn't have permission to film. Or an "NGO" focused on "rehabilitation" for the victims of the 1965-66 killings would turn up and declare that "this is our turf -- the villagers here have paid us to protect them." (When we later visited the NGO's office, we discovered that the head was none other than the area's leading killer -- and a friend of Anwar Congo's -- and the NGO's staff seemed to be military intelligence officers.)

Not only did we feel unsafe filming the survivors, we worried for their safety. And the survivors couldn't answer the question of how the killings were perpetrated.

Boastful killers

But the killers were more than willing to help and, when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer's rank. Military officers would even task soldiers with keeping curious onlookers at a distance, so that our sound recording wouldn't be disturbed.

This bizarre situation was my second starting point for making The Act of Killing. And the question in mind was this: What does it mean to live in, and be governed by, a regime whose power rests on the performance of mass murder and its boastful public recounting, even as it intimidates survivors into silence? Again, there seemed to be a profound failure of the imagination.

Within Indonesia more generally, such openness about the killings might be exceptional. But in North Sumatra, it is standard operating procedure. There, the army recruited its death squads from the ranks of gangsters. Gangsters' power derives from being feared, and so the thugs ruling North Sumatra have trumpeted their role in the genocide ever since, framing it as heroic struggle, while all the time taking care to include grisly details that inspire a constant and undiminished disquiet, unease, even terror of possible recurrence.

In the gangsters' role as the political bosses of North Sumatra (a province of 14 million people), they have continued to celebrate themselves as heroes, reminding the public of their role in the massacres, while continuing to threaten the survivors -- and they have done so even as governors, senators, members of parliament, and, in the case of one prominent veteran of the 1965-66 genocide, as the perversely named "Deputy Minister of Law and Human Rights."

Seizing the moment

I understood that gangsters don't hold quite the same monopoly on power in many other regions of Indonesia -- including Jakarta. So in one sense the circumstances in North Sumatra differ from elsewhere. Perpetrators in other regions haven't been so open, not because they fear prosecution (they don't), but because they don't need to use stories about the genocide as a tool of criminal and political intimidation. And yet, just as the situations I encountered in Sumatra had parallels in the United States, so too did they embody a logic of total impunity that defines Indonesia as a whole, and probably any other regime built on terror.

In this, I saw an opportunity: If the perpetrators in North Sumatra were given the means to dramatize their memories of genocide in whatever ways they wished, they would probably seek to glorify it further, to transform it into a "beautiful family movie" (as Anwar puts it) whose kaleidoscopic use of genres would reflect their multiple, conflicting emotions about their "glorious past." I anticipated that the outcomes from this process would serve as an exposé, even to Indonesians themselves, of just how deep the impunity and lack of resolution in their country remains.

Moreover, Anwar and his friends had helped to build a regime that terrorized their victims into treating them as heroes, and I realized that the filmmaking process would answer many questions about the nature of such a regime -- questions that may seem secondary to what they did, but in fact are inseparable from it. For instance, how do Anwar and his friends really think people see them? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? How do they see their victims? How does the way they think they will be seen by others reveal what they imagine about the world they live in, the culture they have built? The filmmaking method we used in The Act of Killing was developed to answer these questions. It is best seen as an investigative technique, refined to help us understand not only what we see, but also how we see, and how we imagine. These are questions of critical importance to understanding the imaginative procedures by which human beings persecute each other, and how we then go on to build (and live in) societies founded on systemic and enduring violence.

Anwar's reactions

If my goal in initiating the project was to find answers to these questions, and if Anwar's declared intent was to glorify his past actions, there is no way that he could not, in part, be disappointed by the final film. And yet, a crucial component of the filmmaking process involved screening the footage back to Anwar and his friends along the way. Inevitably, we screened the most painful scenes. They know what is in the film; indeed, they openly debate the consequences of the film, inside the film. And seeing these scenes only made Anwar more interested in the work, which is how I gradually realized that he was on a parallel, more personal journey through the filmmaking process, one in which he sought to come to terms with the meaning of what he had done. In that sense, too, Anwar is the bravest and most honest character in The Act of Killing. He may or may not "like" the result, but I have tried to honor his courage and his openness by presenting him as honestly, and with as much compassion, as I could, while still deferring to the unspeakable acts that he committed.

There is no easy resolution to The Act of Killing. The murder of one million people is inevitably fraught with complexity and contradiction. In short, it leaves behind a terrible mess. All the more so when the killers have remained in power, when there has been no attempt at justice, and when the story has hitherto only been used to intimidate the survivors. Seeking to understand such a situation, intervening in it, documenting it -- this, too, can only be equally tangled, unkempt.

The struggle continues

I have developed a filmmaking method with which I have tried to understand why extreme violence, which we hope would be unimaginable, is not only the exact opposite, but also routinely performed. I have tried to understand the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles. Some viewers may desire a formal closure by the end of the film, a successful struggle for justice that results in changes in the balance of power, human rights tribunals, reparations and official apologies. One film alone cannot create these changes, but this desire has of course been our inspiration as well, as we attempt to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not, finally, a story only about Indonesia. It is a story about us all.

Joshua Oppenheimer, Director