October 2013

Arts & Letters

Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’

By Luke Davies
Unforced confessions

“I immediately knew I’d never seen anything like [it],” said Werner Herzog recently, recounting the time two years ago when filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer showed him an eight-minute assembly of what would eventually become the full-length documentary The Act of Killing (in limited release from 3 October). “I’d never seen anything as powerful, as frightening and as surreal as what was on the screen, and I immediately said, ‘This is big. This is truly, truly big.’”

Herzog, of course, is no stranger to hyperbole, and his grand enthusiasms are part of his charm. Yet for The Act of Killing he came on board as an executive producer. “You won’t see a film of that power and that surrealism in the next one or two or three decades, period,” he said.

The Act of Killing  may belong to that small category of films – Gaspar Noé’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily difficult to watch, Irreversible is another that springs to mind – that you must see if you care about filmmaking, and that you may never care to see again.

The film’s subjects certainly feel strongly about it. “Whether this ends up on the big screen, or only on TV,” says its central figure, Anwar Congo, in one scene, “it doesn’t matter. We have to show —”

“That this is the history —” interrupts Herman Koto, a mid-level functionary of an Indonesian paramilitary organisation known as Pancasila Youth, and Anwar’s younger brother-in-arms and general hanger-on.

“— that this is who we are,” continues Anwar. “So in the future people will remember.”

That would appear to be one of the director’s aims, too. Oppenheimer had already spent some years in Indonesia, filming interviews with the families of communists – accused, suspected or actual – killed by Pancasila Youth’s death squads for the Indonesian army in the aftermath of the failed military coup of 1965, when he asked an innocuous question about the killers. “Why don’t you ask them?” replied the interviewee. Some of the death squad members, it turned out, were alive and well and living nearby.

Oppenheimer tracked several of them down. They were happy and willing to talk on camera about their blood-curdling acts, radiant with a kind of wistful nostalgia, and when Oppenheimer invited them to re-enact their torturing and killing, in the style of any of the Hollywood films they loved so much, they embraced the project with torturously inept enthusiasm, and little or no self-awareness.

The result is a harrowing, deeply disturbing and utterly compelling film. It is firmly – and politically – a documentary, but at the same time a savage phantasmagoria that circles and dissects the banality of evil before catapulting its investigations into a kind of grandiose and demented fever-dream. The triumph of the filmmaking, stylistically speaking, is that the dementedness comes to seem entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

Upwards of half a million people were killed in purges during the bloody years of transition between the rule of President Sukarno and the takeover of General – later President – Suharto. Anwar Congo was a young hood 50 years ago, scalping tickets at the local cinema, standing over small businesses, but he found his higher calling as a founding member of Pancasila Youth, and as a death squad leader.

The killing was systematic. Many of the accused were first brought to the offices of newspaper proprietor Ibrahim Sinik, for interrogation dressed up as “reporting”. “Whatever we asked,” says a proud, smiling Sinik, “we’d change their answers, to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them.” Much of the killing took place in rooms above the newspaper offices. (Sinik, on orders from higher up in the military, told the death squads who to kill.) “We killed so many people there,” says Anwar, “I called it the ‘Office of Blood’.” Anwar demonstrates for the cameras some of the gruesome killing techniques. “It’s like we were killing,” he says, searching for the word, “happily.”

During the course of filming, something starts to happen: either Anwar starts breaking down, or, perhaps realising what he’s got himself into, he begins to play the role of someone breaking down. My guess would lean towards the former: it’s as if the act of opening up to Oppenheimer becomes an unstoppable, demon-haunted therapy. “I know my bad dreams come from what I did,” he says. “Killing people who didn’t want to die.”

Into the film, at Anwar’s invitation, wanders his old pal Adi Zulkadry. The camera follows Adi meandering around an up-market mall with his wife and teenage daughter, while in voice-over he boasts about his part in the killings. “We shoved wood into their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hanged them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there was nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

Adi and Anwar go fishing. It’s an idyllic scene: two senior citizens, casting their lines in a quiet pond, reminiscing. Anwar begins to suggest his sense of being haunted by the dead. “You feel haunted because your mind is weak,” Adi responds. “The people we killed, lost. Even when they had bodies, they lost. Now they only have spirits – so they’re weaker. How can they haunt you? But if you feel guilty, your defences collapse. Have you ever been to a neurologist?”

“If I went to a neurologist,” says Anwar, “it would mean I’m crazy.”

(Later in the film, Anwar goes back to fish at the same pond by himself in the dark of night. “Imagine,” he says, “in all this darkness – it’s like we’re living at the end of the world. We look around. There’s only darkness. It’s so very terrifying.”)

In a brilliant sleight of hand, Oppenheimer gives these mass murderers a semblance of creative control over his documentary. “We seize[d] this opportunity,” he has said, “to expose how a regime that was founded on crimes against humanity, but has never been held accountable, would project itself into history … We challenge[d] Anwar and his friends to develop fiction scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favourite film genres – gangster, Western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.”

In one distressing scene, the men sit around between takes. Suddenly Anwar’s neighbour Suryono, who’s been helping with shooting, pipes up. “I’ll tell you a true story,” he says. Anwar and friends stop and listen. Laughing nervously, Suryono tells how his stepfather was taken away in the middle of the night, and how they found his body the next morning. “Nobody dared help us,” he says. “We buried him like a goat next to the main road. Just me and my grandfather, carrying the body, digging the grave. No one helped us. I was so small.”

The men listen, fascinated, and gradually realise it could be the tale of any one of their countless victims. “I’m not criticising you,” says Suryono, his smile like a rictus, his voice high in his throat. “Why should I hide this from you? We should get to know each other, right? I promise I’m not criticising what we’re doing. It’s only input for the film. I promise I’m not criticising you.”

There’s a silence. “Look, everything’s already been planned,” says Herman Koto, a rotund man who seems to play all the female characters in the film within the film, and is dressed in drag, with lurid make-up.

“We can’t include every story,” says another man, “or the film will never end.”

“And your story is too complicated,” adds Anwar. “It would take days to shoot.”

They go on to shoot their next scene; Suryono plays the torture victim. Anwar gives direction: “Mumble. Glance to the left and right, terrified.” At a certain point Suryono, tied to a chair, breaks down weeping. His distress seems real. Snot spurts from his nose. “Have mercy on me. Please, sir!” he cries, as they blindfold him and loop wire around his neck. “Wait. Could you give a message to my family? Or could I speak to them one last time?”

The “stars”, such hams themselves, look on, quietened, in seeming astonishment. Adi continues to act while giving directions. “Lower your head,” he says to Suryono in the moment of his “death”. And then, as chief interrogator, to Anwar and the other actors, gruffly: “Wrap him up.”

Later, when the men devise and improvise a film noir scene about the interrogation, torture and killing of a communist leader who had agitated to ban American films, Anwar volunteers to play the communist. Things don’t go so well. After he is “garrotted”, his “torturers” take off the wire. “I feel like I was dead for a moment,” he says, panting.

 “Don’t get so into it,” says Herman. “Don’t think about it too much.”

Anwar shakily takes a sip of water. “OK, let’s do it,” he says, steeling himself.

Take two: they blindfold and garrotte him again. Mid-scene, Anwar signals distress with his hand. “Are you all right?” asks Herman.

“I can’t do that again,” replies Anwar, ashen-faced.

Later still, Anwar watches the “rushes” of his own performance. “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks the director. “I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed. And then fear came, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me, and possessed me.”

“Actually,” says Oppenheimer, from off-camera, “the people you tortured felt far worse, because you know it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.”

Anwar blinks, ponders the notion. “But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh.” He starts to cry. “Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won’t. I don’t want it to, Josh.”

As the film progresses, it shifts increasingly to the bizarre and unsettling. Though Oppenheimer is still shaping his narrative from recordings of actual events, those events more and more include the killers’ own delighted excursions into filmmaking. So surreal do the re-creations become that at times it’s hard to know what their scenes are even representing. Yet the men feel like movie stars, and the camera gives them power.

They re-enact a massacre, with smoke machines and flares and shouting, and extras gathered from the local town and even their own families. After one big take, Herman’s 11-year-old daughter is sobbing hysterically, no doubt because what they’ve just shot was so frightening and confusing. “Febby,” he tells her, “your acting was great, but stop crying. You’re embarrassing me. Film stars only cry for a moment.”

Oppenheimer has spoken of how, when he was filming the survivors, his crew was constantly harassed by officials, by the police and military. He felt unsafe, and feared for the safety of the survivors. “But the killers were more than willing to help,” he said, “and when we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever. All doors were open. Local police would escort us to the sites of mass killing, saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank.”

The Act of Killing suggests that Indonesia, ostensibly a democracy, is more a nation-state in pathological denial, run by a military-based klepto-elite that controls the economy and the very machinery of corruption. “What does it mean,” asks Oppenheimer, “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?”

The men go on a current affairs program to talk about Oppenheimer’s film. The presenter, a telegenic young woman, applauds Pancasila Youth. “They developed a new, humane system for exterminating communists,” she says, in her introduction. “It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence.” (She’s referring to the method of garrotting with wire, which Anwar says he picked up from a gangster film.) Later in the interview, Anwar says, grinning, “For massacre, I usually wore jeans.”

Anwar seems to have no real idea of the kind of film Oppenheimer is constructing around him. “It’s a good family movie,” he says, after one session of viewing rushes. “Plenty of humour, a great story, wonderful scenery. It really shows what’s special about our country – even though it’s a film about death.”

Such is the power of the current regime, with its direct roots in 1966, that it is unclear whether the film will even be released in Indonesia. Many Indonesians crewed The Act of Killing, but are billed only as “Anonymous” in the end credits. It’s a brave film, and an important one. Whether it becomes an instrument of change, or even national self-examination, remains to be seen.

In any case, Adi will surely hold the fort on behalf of the old regime. “The Geneva Conventions,” he says, “may be today’s morality, but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definitions.”

 “What if you were brought to the International Court in The Hague?” Oppenheimer asks.



“I’d go!” says Adi. “I don’t feel guilty, so why would I go? Because I’d be famous.” He chuckles at the thought. “I’m ready! Please, get me called to The Hague!”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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