Austin, Texas-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent years researching one of the most horrific genocides in history. He has emerged from the process with a festival-favorite documentary — one spiked with surreal humor and musical numbers.
To make The Act of Killing, which opened Friday, August 9, at the Alamo Drafthouse, Oppenheimer and his collaborators put retired paramilitary Indonesian gangsters on camera. Starting in 1965, the criminals' roles in the Indonesian underworld went from scalping movie tickets to murdering thousands of people. Their victims were suspected communists or had been targeted simply for being ethnic Chinese. Veteran documentarians Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss) and Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), the film's executive producers, saw an early cut of the movie and agreed to advise Oppenheimer on how to assemble and promote his work.
What makes The Act of Killing grimly funny and genuinely shocking is that its subjects recount their own crimes with evident glee, even participating in re-enactments set up as mob movies or musical comedies. The result examines the slaughter of 1 million–2 million people with an approach that's somehow more disturbing than a straightforward documentary might have been.
Speaking by phone, Oppenheimer explains why this skewed report enables viewers to see the horror more clearly, especially in Indonesia.
The Pitch: When you first decided to make a movie about genocide, did you ever think that it would become a musical?
Oppenheimer: No. [Laughs.] Certainly not. When I first began this project, it was in cooperation with a community of survivors. In fact, you could say I made the entire film with a community of survivors.
When word got out that we were looking into the 1965–66 genocide, the Indonesian military would come and stop us every time we started to film together. Meanwhile, the survivors would send me on these painful missions to meet with neighbors who they thought were perpetrators and might be able to shed light on how their loved ones had died. When I confronted the fact that the survivors were terrorized into silence by the regime and that the perpetrators were boasting about what they had done, I felt that I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find that the Nazis were still in power.
Anwar Congo, the main character in The Act of Killing, was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. When I met him, I imagined creating these simple re-enactments of many perpetrators from across the region. Anwar, because he was one of the first movie-theater [ticket-scalping] gangsters in this film, started to propose these more and more surreal embellishments inspired by his favorite genres — I think because he was, in fact, trying to run away from his pain. He was trying to deny the moral meaning of what he has done by making his re-enactments.
As a viewer, I was deeply disturbed by the scenes where you have this man, who has oceans of blood on his hands, playing with his grandchildren. You don't usually think of someone who has committed genocide as a grandpa.
But almost everyone who has committed genocide and isn't in jail or hasn't been defeated in a war, and is therefore killed, is a grandpa.
Were you surprised at how comical some of these re-enactments got?
There are two types of humor in this film. I think there's humor where the men in the film are very open with who they are. Whenever I'm filming anybody, I look for people who are going to be open.
Anwar, I think, had a gift in casting. Without my asking, he always chose people who were similarly open. He chose Herman Koto and dressed him up in drag to play a number of roles.