A few years back, Lars Von Trier told a crowd of Cannes journalists “I understand Hitler,” which led first to uncomfortable looks from Kirsten Dunst, and eventually to Von Trier being declared a “persona non-grata” and banned from the festival. Back in 2002, Bill Maher made a comment about the 9/11 hijackers, saying of their decision to knowingly kill themselves by flying planes into a building, “say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,” which eventually led to his show being cancelled.
While it seems fairly straightforward and non-controversial for an individual to accept the basic truth of the statement that it might be possible to agree with or even empathize with, say, Hitler about… something, if you actually met him on the street – maybe you both hate mayo! – or to agree at least semantically with the idea that someone who suicidally flies a plane directly into a building isn’t “cowardly,” human beings’ knee-jerk refusal to accept the idea that those who do monstrous things are made out of the same basic biological building blocks as the rest of us is almost comically transparent. We grasp at anything that will separate “us” from “them,” no matter how ridiculous, whether it be boxing (as in the Boston marathon) or brain tumors (the University of Texas clock tower shootings). And I’m convinced that we lose the legitimate lessons when we focus on the easy answers.
The trick Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary Act of Killing pulls is that it absolutely forces you into a state of empathy with admitted murderers. In one of the world’s lesser-discussed atrocities, the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966 purged the country of somewhere between 500,000 and a million “communists” – union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese – with the direct aid of Western governments in one of the most regrettable chapters of the Cold War. In Indonesia, the same status quo that helped purge the communists, an association of government, military, paramilitaries, and “gangsters,” is still in power, and far from being punished, many of those who participated in the killings are celebrated for them.
Oppenheimer began his documentary ten years ago, first by trying to talk to the victims of the massacres, but he soon discovered that most were rightfully terrified of reprisals. Conversely, those who actually perpetrated the killings seemed more than willing to boast about it. Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary, so esteemed by fellow documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that they even put their names on it as executive producers, follows a handful of participants in Indonesia’s massacres, urging them to reenact their crimes for a film about them. Which the killers gleefully do, casually describing beheadings and the burning of villages, but also spice up with their own twists, like dance numbers and men in drag, leading to one of the most surreal, eye-opening, and darkly comedic viewing experiences you will ever have. One of the killers, Herman Koto, spends much of the movie in drag with his fat belly hanging out like an overgrown baby in whore make up while he happily describes government-sanctioned murder, illustrating the mundane clownish tragicomedy of evil like nothing else ever has. The comical absurdity of mass murder, it’s no wonder Herzog loved it.
I spoke to Act of Killing co-director Josh Oppenheimer after he showed his film at SXSW, and found a man rightfully passionate about what he’d created, and generously polite about me leading off with the admission that I still hadn’t seen the last 15 minutes of his film (I’d only gotten the screener a few days prior and couldn’t watch it on the plane like I’d planned), which, when I actually did watch it, turned out to be one of the all-time cathartic turning points in the history of film, or any non-fiction, really. The fact that he didn’t shout at me speaks to his compassionate nature.
“And someone had the idea, you should film the killers, because the killers will boast and will actually appear to be proud of what they did, and if you simply film that, you will see why exactly we were so afraid.”
VM: So how did you get involved in the film?
JO: I went to Indonesia to make a film about a group of trade workers who were very badly oppressed. This was kind of the brief, and I actually knew nothing about Indonesia at the time. The story was about workers who were struggling to organize a union in a place where unions had been illegal. Unions had been illegal under the military dictatorship, and that was the biggest obstacle that these plantation workers had in organizing a new union to fight for the most basic protections. They were inhaling a poison that was dissolving their livers. Weed killer. And killing them. They were trying to get masks – this was one of their main demands. And they were afraid to even make those basic demands because there had been a union until 1965 and its members had all been killed. And so that’s how I learned about the genocide. And then I came to understand that while tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people were killed here, the whole system is built on that. And nobody has ever documented what happened in this part of Indonesia.
So I started working with the survivors after I finished working on the film about the union, trying to break the silence about what had happened, and also expose a corrupt regime of terror and fear that had been in place ever since. And when we started, we were constantly being harassed. Every time we would film together we were being arrested. That was uncomfortable for me, but scary for my crew, and terrible for the survivors we were filming with. [Oppenheimer actually co-directed Act of Killing with an Indonesian who chose to be credited as “Anonymous.”]
So we started reaching out to the Indonesian Human Rights Organizations that exist and talking about, “How can we make this film?”
And someone had the idea, you should film the killers, because the killers will boast and will actually appear to be proud of what they did, and if you simply film that, you will see why exactly we were so afraid. When I started, it turned out that the first perpetrator I could film was my next door neighbor from this village, who had killed the aunt of the main character in the film I had been trying to make with the survivors. And I could understand from that that this is why people are so afraid. The killers are living all around them. And I found that the killers were as boastful as you see in the film.
And so then I filmed every killer I could find, trying to understand both what happened, because nobody had ever recorded it, but also to understand the nature of the boasting. How do they see me? How do they want to be seen by the world? And how do they really see themselves? And what are they doing by boasting? And Anwar [Congo, the main character in the film] was the 41st killer that I filmed.
VM: That’s a lot. [Brilliant observation there, me.]
JO: Yeah and I spent about two years tracking them down and filming before I met Anwar.