A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing.

Joshua Oppenheimer's gripping yet chilling documentary The Act Of Killing turns the spotlight on a group of killers whose acts of genocide should have been exposed and prosecuted years before. Their mass killings, with tacit approval from the Indonesian government, however, have not been heard in any human rights court, or any court at all for that matter. Driven by a regime paranoid about communist insurrection, local criminal gangs were elevated to death squad heroes bent on eliminating a perceived leftist threat and engaged in random killing, terrorizing a passive population. Today, the killers boast of their murders, re-enacting their grizzly acts in the style of American movies that they love.

Oppenheimer's shockingly beautiful film, which had its New York Premiere (and North American Premiere of the director's cut) at New Directors/New Films over the weekend, turns the spotlight on a genocide that the world forgot. He tells the story through the eyes of the killers, themselves, who brag about their exploits and tell their story through dramatic re-enactments in a cinematic style they have long admired. Their bragging and the fear they still perpetuate in Indonesia, however, appears to unmask underlying regret and personal torment on the part of the men who committed mass crimes against humanity. Oppenheimer interviewed dozens of the killers for The Act of Killing, but centers the story on one: Anwar, a folksy grandfather who brags to his grandchildren about what he did. Anwar takes Oppenheimer to the place where he committed his atrocities, playfully re-enacting his crimes. The film re-tells a genocide few know about but is exposed with all the drama of a movie set.

Speaking with FilmLinc Daily, Oppenheimer recalls meeting the first of a long list of killers who were all too happy to tell him their story. He talks about the villagers who introduce him to the killers who murdered their relatives, the decision to allow the killers to tell their story by acting out scenes, and the connection to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib that the killers use to justify their unspeakable acts.

FilmLinc: How did you come into contact with Anwar and his group?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I was working in a community of survivors and collaborating with them to make a film also using performance about what had happened to them. I was working with older theater artists who had been held (but survived the killings) for being leftists, in order to resurrect previously-banned village theater forms, create an opera about what had happened to them, and expose a regime that has been living with impunity. It's also a process of reviving a culture. The Act of Killing is not just about killing people; it's also about killing culture, ideas and community. I was working with this community to create a documentary, but every time we filmed we would be stopped. The military would come, the police would come, and village officials would stop us and detain people and their community. It was terrifying for the villagers and I felt like I couldn't make a film if it was terrorizing people. So, we re-grouped and went back to the broader human rights community and we said, “should we not make this film? It's too frightening for the people?” And they said, “no, no, no, you have to do this.” The celebration that came out of what happened is underpinning the regime which perpetrated this.

So one of the survivors told me, “Josh, you should film the killers. I can introduce you. He killed my aunt. He will boast. He will take you where he did it. I know this because he will tell members of the family where and how he did this.” And indeed, that happened. I found a man who told me everything. He would boast and I thought it was important to get these stories. The killers are starting to get old and they'll die and I thought it was important to get these stories. I also was asking myself, “How does this man see his granddaughter. He was telling these stories to his 10-year-old granddaughter and she was looking on bored like she had heard all these stories before. How does he want his granddaughter to remember him? How does he think I see him? How does he want the world to see him?

I felt it was important to get this story, so I filmed every killer I could find and on up the chain of command until I met Anwar and army generals in Jakarta and two retired CIA officers living outside D.C. All of them were boastful and eager to show off what they had done and recreate what they had done. They all had a notion for drama. They all loved films and, many of them, American films. Anwar was the 41st killer I filmed.

Anward Congo (right) preparing for a re-enactment of a massacre in The Act of Killing.

FL: Is it surprising to you that even with the end of Suharto's rule in '98 and something more resembling democracy, that these people have not been called to justice?

JO: It wasn't a shock really, since I was coming out of a community of survivors there. And I had made my first film in 2001 and 2002, which was just a few years after Suharto stepped down. I was aware that not much had changed—certainly not in the north Sumatra region or in the remote villages where a very docile and feudally dependent workers lived. We're used to hearing perpetrators of atrocity deny or apologize for what they had done. But in Indonesia, the killers won and they have build a society that they rule over. And you know, I remember this one survivor recommended a killer to be interviewed, and she said that they will appear to be proud. She knew though that they can't be proud. No human can be proud of that. What appears to be callous or an appearance of new remorse only appears to be that.

But I think, in fact, the celebration of genocide is a symptom of their humanity. If allowed to justify it, they will. If they're not forced to say that they were wrong, they won't. If you have the opportunity to say you're right, you'll do it. And the government, with the help of the U.S., produced a lot of anti-communist propaganda that retroactively justified what they had done… and gave them justification. When people feel insecure for the justification, they become even more desperate in their justification, so it spills over into this absurd celebration. So when Anwar has this vision of his victims meeting him in heaven giving him a medal for killing them, that's a desperate attempt to justify what he had done. Having been corrupted by killing once and have justified it, the people are afraid of you. And you can justify that terror by taking people's land or going around the markets to steal money from the shopkeepers (as depicted in the film) or to keep killing. This becomes a means for continuing to act as they do.

FL: Has Anwar seen the film and what was his reaction to it if so?

JO: Anwar has seen the whole film and has been loyal to it. He's been loyal since seeing it on November 1. He said it's honest and shows exactly what had happened. He said, “it shows exactly what it's like to be me.” You should also know the film cannot be released theatrically in Indonesia because they have political film censorship. But we've held screenings in Autumn for the most influential Indonesian journalist, artists, historians, writers, human rights advocates, etc., and they have universally loved the film. And it is probably the most talked about and well-received cultural work in Indonesia, so that's something I'm very proud of.

Since they have started seeing it, we noted that if we get it to the censors and they ban the film then it becomes a crime to show it in Indonesia. That would then be an excuse for the army to attack at private screenings in people's homes. So to get around that, we told people in the Autumn that saw it to hold screenings privately in a relatively safe way. And on December 10, on International Human Rights Day 2012, these people held 50 screenings in 30 cities with their networks and since then that has grown to 280 cites in 93 cities for 15,000 people. That's not such a huge number for Indonesia—it's a big country—but the amount of discussion the film has generated has been huge.

Indonesian media is now seriously reporting the genocide for the first time, which it hadn't done before The Act of Killing. The biggest news magazine in Indonesia made a special double edition with testimony by the killers inspired by The Act of Killing. There's 100 pages of testimony and about 25 pages about the film. So there's no going back. As Werner Herzog told me: “Art doesn't' make a difference,” and was very quiet… and then said, “until it does.”

Director Joshua Oppenheimer

FL: In telling the story of what they call fighting communists but what is really genocide, you have them re-enact their stories through movie-making. Talk about your decision to do that…

J.O.: You know, I think a similar movie could have been made with the killers I met in the countryside, and their styles would not have been reflective of American movies… In the town I lived in, the killers were movie theater gangsters. Anwar was using cinematic identification to distance himself from the horrible crimes he was committing. He was killing people right across the street from the cinema and, intoxicated with whatever film he had seen, he would use the identification of the main character he had just seen in the movies to distance himself from what he was doing. The evolution of these stylized re-enactments evolved. At first they were just simple re-enactments of him just showing me how he did it. In the first scene he showed me how he killed and then started dancing the Cha-Cha. How could he do that? How does he see himself? So after he did that, I played the scene back to him and I think he was actually quite disturbed. But he didn't have the courage to say why he's disturbed because he's not ready to admit that what he did was wrong… So he begins a five-year process in which he embellishes what he did until he's finally forced to see that what he did is actually wrong. He uses the filming and dramatizations to distance himself from killing and the act of killing.

Every night, Anwar is visited by this miasmic horror in his dreams. This shapeless unidentifiable terror. He's trying to contain that horror by creating these dramatic scenes. Just as a psychologist will tell you to talk about a trauma you've dealt with in order to get a hold of it, he's somehow trying to contain that or replace the terror in his mind by creating a cinematic scar tissue around his own wound and his own brokenness. He becomes more aware through the film that he'll never be able to do that. The scenes are reminding him of what he did. He does more and more scenes hoping to mask that horror. The horrible moment in the film is when he realizes there's an unbridgeable gap between the horror and being able to escape the horror. 

I told them, look, you've participated in one of the biggest killings in human history and your whole society is based on it. Your lives have been shaped by it and I want to understand how that has affected your lives and your society, so to do that, you seem to want to dramatize what you have done or to re-enact it. I will film the process and I will help you if you need technical help, but otherwise it should be totally your vision.  We will find scenes that really have meaning for you. Either how you want to be seen or how you killed people at the office or even how you imagine your redemption, which is where the waterfall scene in heaven comes from… I will combine the making of and combine scenes to tell the story. It's a form of documentary. It's really a documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of everyday occurrence. I was trying to understand how they want to be seen. As I said, Anwar was the 41st killer [I interviewed]. He was showing off about what he had done, which made me think he wasn't proud by what he had done.

FL: It was interesting that one of the killers in the movie cited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to justify his actions.

J.O.: The first killer I filmed took me down to a river. He killed 10,500 people on the banks of that river. The army would bring people and he would cut off their heads—he and his fellow death squad members. He'd show me how he did it. After the re-enactment, he asked my sound person to take a picture of them with the river in the background. They would pose with their thumbs up and giving the “V” for victory and I was asking myself, “How is this possible?” That was February, 2004. I went home from that shoot—my home then was in London—and then in April 2004, the Abu Graihb pictures appeared with American soldiers giving the thumbs up and the “V” for victory and I asked myself again, “How is this possible?” The same question. I made this film contemporaneously with an evolving nightmare in our country in which it was not just condoning torture, but actually celebrating torture. Particularly in right wing talk radio, which would say torture is too good for these people.

So when we see this film, I hope the audience will identify a small part of herself in Anwar. This movie isn't just a dark mirror held up to Anwar, but also a dark mirror held up to Indonesian society and a dark mirror held up to ourselves.

The Act of Killing screened March 23 and 24 in New Directors/New Films. A theatrical release is planned for July 2013.