New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with the director of a groundbreaking new documentary called The Act of Killing. The film is set in Indonesia, where beginning in 1965 the military and paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the government. That military was backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades. There’s been no truth and reconciliation commission. As the film says, Indonesia is a country where the killers are, to this day, celebrated as heroes. A key figure in the film is Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand, people with his own hands and is now revered as a founding father of an active right-wing paramilitary organization.
Well, director Joshua Oppenheimer spent more than eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders, and in The Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies the men love to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and lavish musical numbers. The film is remarkable.
Now, the issue of the Indonesian military’s brutality is no stranger to our Democracy Now! audience. In 1990 and '91, I traveled to Indonesia and occupied East Timor. I went there with reporter Allan Nairn. There, we witnessed a massacre by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military. That was the Indonesian military occupying a foreign land. This film deals with the Indonesian military's murder of its own people.
Well, this week, I sat down with Joshua Oppenheimer to talk about The Act of Killing, which he directed with Christine Cynn and an Indonesian co-director who remains anonymous for fear of retribution for making the film, as does much of the Indonesian film crew. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. The Act of Killing opens today in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and comes to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., July 26, then to theaters nationwide. This is a clip from the film’s trailer.
HERMAN KOTO: [translated] Cut! Cut! Cut! You acted so well, but you can stop crying now.
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] "War crimes" are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Have mercy on me!
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] Honestly, I never expected it to look this brutal.
I can’t do that again.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Kill!
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] I did this to so many people. Have I sinned?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Act of Killing, a new film that has been eight years in the making. Its director, Josh Oppenheimer, joins us now in studio, longtime filmmaker who has worked for over a decade with militias, death squads, their victims, to examine political violence and the public imagination. The Act of Killing’s co-director remains anonymous. Its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Joshua Oppenheimer, welcome to Democracy Now!
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an astounding film. It is a masterpiece. We’ll talk about whether it can be called a documentary. I wanted to ask you if you could just give us the context of what happened. People—many people who are watching—
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —or listening right now have never even heard of Suharto, so explain to us what happened in 1965.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: So, in 1965, the left-leaning government of Sukarno—it was basically a socialist nonaligned government, Sukarno was the founder of independent Indonesia—was overthrown in a military coup that led to the dictatorship, the 32-year dictatorship of Suharto, and then an ongoing corruption that continues to today. When Sukarno was overthrown, the military swiftly went after everybody who was opposed to the new regime and accused them of being communists. Of course, some of them were communists. Indonesia had the largest communist party, that was committed to achieving political power through the democratic process. They were an unarmed, non—in a way, non-revolutionary communist party. There was—so they were accused, but also women’s—the Indonesian women’s movement, the entire trade union movement, intellectuals, teachers, and the ethnic Chinese, and also land reform advocates. So, within somewhere—within a year, somewhere between half a million and two-and-a-half million people were killed in what was really one of the very largest genocides in our history.
And it was reported in the United States as good news. It was reported in The New York Times and Time magazine fairly accurately in terms of the death tolls, but with headlines like "A Gleam of Light in Asia," "The West’s Best News for Years in Asia." So, inevitably, these events have been forgotten in the West, because how do you remember the killing of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people as good news? It doesn’t make sense as a story, and so we forget it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the U.S. role at the time, something that is—
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —very much—if people even know about what happened here, it’s a story that isn’t as well known.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yes. The U.S. was—and the West, in general, particularly the U.K., probably Australia, were very much involved with supporting and encouraging the genocide. The U.S. provided money. It provided some weapons. It provided radios so that the army could coordinate the killings across this vast archipelago that is Indonesia. They also provided death lists, lists of thousands of names that—of fairly prominent public figures, leftists, leaders of unions, intellectuals. So it wasn’t meaningful intelligence, but it was a clear signal: We want these people dead.
AMY GOODMAN: And these are political officers within the U.S. embassy handing over names of people, and they were crossing off the names as they were killed.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. One of them was a guy called Bob Martens, from the—a former State Department official who, when we met him, was living in Bethesda, Maryland. And another was the CIA deputy station chief, Joe Lazarsky, living in suburban Virginia. They were handing out—they were handing over these lists of names. Basically, I remember—actually, Bob Martens was on the record in 1990; he was interviewed by a journalist called Kathy Kadane, and he said, "I may have blood on my hands, but sometimes that’s a good thing."
And, you know, the whole—beyond that list of names, who were people the Indonesian army certainly knew about, the whole message from the United States was: We want you not to just go after a few political leaders who are opposed to the new regime, the leaders of the Communist Party, for example; we want you to go after the entire grassroots base of the Indonesian left. It’s as if one day everybody affiliated with the Democratic Party and everybody registered as a Democrat was hunted down and killed or put in concentration camps. That’s essentially what happened in Indonesia in 1965, with Western support.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about your film. You’re giving the political backdrop. Talk about how you discovered the people in your film. And begin with the name, because that very much tells us the story, The Act of Killing, and its various meanings.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, The Act of Killing is, of course, the title of the film. It has a few—it has several meanings. Of course, it can refer to the commission of the crime of killing or commission of the deed of killing, which, it’s worth pointing out, is fundamentally a human act. We have really no other species, except for a couple of the higher primates, kill each other. Human beings kill each other, and we kill each other en masse and again and again and again through our history. So there’s a sense that the film looks at what does it mean for human beings to kill. What are the consequences of killing? Why do—why do we kill? What are the consequences on our societies for impunity around killing? How do we justify killing through the stories we tell?
And then, in Medan, in the capital of North Sumatra, the largest city in Sumatra, the third-largest city in Indonesia, a city of about the size perhaps of Chicago, the army recruited in 1965 its civilian death squad members from the ranks of movie theater gangsters, preman bioskop in Indonesian. These men were gangsters. They were part of a mafia that was running all sorts of criminal rackets, protection rackets, smuggling, illegal logging, prostitution rings, and so forth, but they were using as their base of operations movie theaters. And they were selling movie theater tickets on the black market as a kind of small side source of income. And they loved the movies. And because they were hanging out in them, so they developed a whole culture around the movies, whole kind of youth gang culture around the movies.
And at the time, the head of the American Motion Picture Association of Indonesia, a man named Bill Palmer, was believed by ordinary Indonesians to have been involved—been plotting a coup to overthrow the president of Indonesia, Sukarno. He was—he had a villa outside—the head of the American—the distributor of American movies in Indonesia had a villa outside of Jakarta in which they found a memorandum—which may or may not have been a forgery, we don’t know—planning—signed by the British ambassador, Gilchrist—again, could have been a forgery—but it was discovered, and it was a coup attempt against President Sukarno. So everybody had reason to think in Indonesia at the time that the head—the guy bringing American movies to Indonesia, Hollywood movies to Indonesia, was in fact a CIA officer and planning to overthrow their founding father, if you like. So there was a boycott, a wide-ranging, a wide—you know, a broad-based boycott of American movies in 1964, ’65.
And the movie theater gangsters hated this. So the army recruited them because they knew they had a proven capacity for violence, because they were criminals, gangsters, and they knew that they hated the Indonesian left already and could be easily mobilized to do their dirty work in attacking the left once the killing started. So the movie theater gangsters were recruited to form these death squads.
And as it happened, they loved—because of their love of movies, and because the army had placed the offices where they were killing people directly across the street from the cinema, so that it was convenient for them to leave the cinema, walk across the street and torture and kill people, they would torture and kill people in ways inspired by American movies. And the main character in the film, Anwar Congo, describes coming out of the movies, the midnight show—an Elvis Presley musical, for example—dancing his way across the street and killing happily. So, acting was always part of the act of killing for the men in the film. It was a way of distancing themselves from the horrific deeds they were doing.
And, of course, then, in my film, I have them—or I allow them to re-enact what they’ve done, to dramatize what they’ve done in whatever ways they wish. It’s worth, perhaps, in a moment, going into how I came to that method. But so, "the act of killing" has this double and even triple meaning, how acting was always part of the act of killing, how in the film they act out their memories of killing. And finally, it’s worth remembering that the act of killing needn’t be—needn’t refer simply to the act of killing human beings. It can—as it does in this case—as The Act of Killing demonstrates, I hope, as the film demonstrates, it also refers to the act of killing ideas, hope, community, solidarity, and sort of our common humanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. He spent more than eight years interviewing Indonesian death squad leaders, and in his new film, The Act of Killing, he works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies the men love to watch. This includes classic Hollywood gangster movies and lavish musical numbers. The Act of Killing opens today in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and then moves on to Los Angeles and Washington and the rest of the country. We’ll continue our interview in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with my interview with the director of a groundbreaking new documentary called The Act of Killing. The film is about Indonesia, where, beginning in 1965, the U.S.-backed military and paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the government. A key figure in the film, Anwar Congo, who killed hundreds, if not a thousand, people with his own hands, now revered as a founding father of an active right-wing paramilitary. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent more than eight years interviewing Indonesian death squad leaders; in The Act of Killing, works with them to re-enact the real-life killings in the style of American movies. Let’s go back to the interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, but first a scene from The Act of Killing.
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] There’s many ghosts here, because many people were killed here. They died unnatural deaths. Unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy. When they got here, they were beaten up, and died. At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood. There was so much blood here. So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system. Can I show you?
Sit there. Face that way. We have to re-enact this properly. This is how to do it without too much blood.
I’ve tried to forget all this, with good music, dancing, feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little—what do you call it? Ecstasy? Once I’d get drunk, I’d fly and feel happy.
AMY GOODMAN: Anwar Congo describing the act of killing. Joshua Oppenheimer, you’re the director. Take it from there.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: This was in fact the very first day that I met Anwar or filmed Anwar. And it was typical, in a way. As I was saying earlier, I began this process in the countryside outside of the city of Medan working with survivors. They would send me to meet perpetrators. The perpetrators would boast. When we would go back and film with the survivors, however, the military would come and stop us. The army and the police would come and stop us. They would detain us. They would take our equipment. They would take our tapes. And it was very difficult to get anything done, and it was terrifying for the survivors themselves.
So we regrouped. We went to Jakarta as a group with the survivors with whom we were filming, met the broader Indonesian human rights community and asked, "Is this too soon, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, for us to make this film? Is it still too sensitive?" We showed what we had filmed with the perpetrators. We asked, "Is it too dangerous?" Everybody said, "No, you must continue. We need—you’re on to something terribly important, and we need a film that exposes, for Indonesians themselves—above all, for Indonesians themselves—the nature of the regime in which they’re living, things that they already know but have been too afraid to say. Essentially, we need a film that comes to Indonesia, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing to things we know are true but are too afraid to articulate, so that we can now articulate them without fear."
So, we talked about how we could do this safely, and one of the key survivors in the film said, "You know, why don’t you—why don’t you film more perpetrators? Because you’re finding out what happened, and in their boasting, the audience can see exactly why we’re so afraid, and also you can see the nature of this regime, what’s wrong with it, that these men could boast this way."
And so, I went back and started to realize, this is—it’s as though I am in Nazi Germany 40 years after the end of the Holocaust, and it’s still the Third Reich, the Nazis are still in power. So the official history says nothing about the killings. But, and yet, the aging SS officers have been allowed to boast about what they’ve done, even encouraged to do so, so that they’ve become these kind of feared proxies of the state in their communities, in their regions, and also perhaps that they can justify to themselves what they have done. And I realized at that point that this was a reality so grave, so important, that I would give it whatever it took of my life.
And I realized, I suppose, at that point, I knew that I would have to film every perpetrator I could find across the region, working my way up the chain of command, to the city of Medan and beyond, to retired army generals in Jakarta, to a retired State Department and CIA officer living outside of D.C. And I worked my way across the region. Every perpetrator I met was boastful. Every perpetrator I met was open. Within minutes of speaking to me, they would tell me these awful stories. Then typically they would invite me to the places where they killed. I always said, "Yes, take me," because I wanted to know what happened. I knew that we’re talking about the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people in one region. And these men, as they would forget—as they would grow old and die, the facts of what had happened would be lost.
So I felt entrusted by the survivors and the human rights community to film every single person I could find. Somewhere—Anwar, the main character in The Act of Killing, was the 41st killer I filmed. And somewhere around 10 or 15, my questions started to shift from "What happened back in 1965?" to "What’s going on now that these men can boast like this? Why are they boasting? For whom are they boasting? How do they want to be seen by the rest of the world? And how do they see themselves?"
AMY GOODMAN: Anwar Congo, it is said, has killed a thousand people.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yes, yes, that’s right. That’s what he’s—
AMY GOODMAN: With the piano wire or in all the different methods he used. Describe going out with him to the countryside.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: There’s two times we go to the countryside, actually. There’s one time where he re-enacts a killing which he thinks is the source of his nightmares. Of course, it’s not. He says he’s killed one person and failed to close the person’s eyes. He’s cut off a head, and the head stares at him. And he is in—starting to talk about his pain. It’s one of these conflicting moments, in that he’s, on the one hand, opening up about his pain and his trauma and his brokenness, at the same time as he’s still lying to himself about what he’s—about the source of his nightmares. He has killed a thousand people. He’s saying his nightmares come from this one killing.
That’s—that was one moment, and that is a crucial moment in the film, in that it opens up the whole exploration of his conscience, which I was resistant to throughout the film. I felt as though I had been entrusted by a community of survivors to expose a whole regime, and I was asking questions of the nature of the regime. I was not interested in leading a killer to remorse. But as it’s happened, his broke—discovering his brokenness has been the most effective exposÃ©, if you like, of the rottenness of the whole regime, because if he was a genuine hero, if he was really this sort of founding father of this great new order, he would be enjoying his old age in peace. But instead, he is tormented, and the other killers you meet in the film are totally hollow, and also, in a way, therefore, destroyed by what they’ve done. And I think that has resonated so much with Indonesians as they see the film. They say, "My gosh, what is the nature of this country?"
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the Pancasila. Talk about what is happening today.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: So, there is a—Anwar is a founding father of this paramilitary movement called Pancasila Youth, as are all of the killers we meet in the film. And it is a three-million-strong right-wing paramilitary gangster movement that has the support of the government. There’s a scene in the film where we see the vice president of Indonesia, the then-vice president of Indonesia—
AMY GOODMAN: Kalla.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: —addressing—Jusuf Kalla, addressing a rally of Pancasila Youth, wearing the—wearing their trademark orange camouflage. Obviously, camouflage we think of as something you wear so that you blend in. Bright orange camouflage you wear so that you stand out. It exists so that—it exists so that these people are feared. It exists to scare people. And he addresses—the vice president of Indonesia addresses this rally and says, "We need our gangsters. We need to be able to beat people up so that we can get things done." And there’s a key—
AMY GOODMAN: This is the vice president saying this, and gangster, he says, means?
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Free man.
AMY GOODMAN: Free man.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: And, indeed, the word for "gangster" in Indonesia is preman, which comes from the Dutch "free man." So, it’s—they’ve used this etymological, not quite coincidence, but essentially by now a coincidence, to euphemize and justify a whole—the whole existence of a gangster, a parallel system of gangsters.
And one of the—the other time in the film where we take Anwar to the countryside is to re-enact a massacre of a village. Pancasila Youth has sort of, I don’t know, set as its sort of most heroic victory a—its most heroic victory was the massacre of a village called Kampung Kolam, and it’s a village outside of Medan where they basically went in, they said it was a secret communist base, but they went in, and they raped, looted and massacred. And to understand how this whole right-wing paramilitary movement sees itself, I gathered together the—about a hundred young leaders in this movement, a minister in the government, a deputy—the deputy minister of youth and sport—his dossier is to look after political gangsters, with "youth" being a euphemism for gangster. He flies in from Jakarta to act—to direct and act in this massacre. And they re-enact the destruction of a village. We build a set. We build a village. They cast their children and their wives to play the victims. And they set about destroying the village. And very real trauma comes up, especially for Anwar, during the course of that—of that scene.
AMY GOODMAN: In that scene, when they say, "Cut! Cut!" because they’re also directing the scene—they’re in it, and they’re directing it, like a movie. One of the little girls keeps crying.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the response to her by one of the killers.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Well, it’s actually—the girl who’s crying is Herman, Anwar’s sidekick and sort of one of the three main characters in the film, his daughter. And she—all of the children in the film have been auditioned for their ability to cry. And they’re not actually children of victims; they’re playing children of victims. She cries. Herman does his best to comfort her. He has a very wonderful line where he says, "Movie stars normally only cry for a second, so pull yourself together. You’re embarrassing your father."
But, in a way, I think that her—the child—the children’s crying is not what’s—it’s always disturbing to see children cry in film, but that’s probably not the most disturbing thing. There’s another woman there who’s the wife of a high-ranking paramilitary leader, who is, on a—in another moment in the film, her husband is saying, "God hates the communists," on television. She looks like she’s fainted. And an Indonesian viewer will say she’s kesurupan, or possessed. And they’re trying to kind of purge the ghost, so they’re trying to exorcise the ghosts that possess her. Whether we believe in possession and ghosts or not, what’s clear is that she is old enough to have experiences of this, even though she’s married to a high-ranking perpetrator. Some real memory or real trauma comes up through the process.
And I think it speaks to—it speaks really to something at the core of the film, which is that no matter how much, as a filmmaker, as an artist, I tried to stay in control of what was happening and control the experience that was unfolding in the shooting and also in the edited film, I think we were all—all of us were overwhelmed. It was like a tsunami overtaking us. And I think, in hindsight, you cannot walk into a place where a million people have been killed, where the perpetrators are still in power and are boasting about it and keeping everybody afraid, and then, it turns out, are doing that as much to protect their own conscience, so they can live with themselves, as to keep everybody else down—you cannot do that and not—and address such a situation honestly and not be overwhelmed.
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Oppenheimer, talking about his new film, The Act of Killing. We’ll continue our interview in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the new film, opening tonight, The Act of Killing.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: The premise of the film is that Anwar and his friends are able to re-enact what they’ve done in whatever ways they wished. As I was filming perpetrator after perpetrator, they would take me to the places where they killed. They would offer to show me—want to show me how they killed. And gradually, I started asking them, "Look, you’ve"—or saying to them, very openly, "You’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. Your whole society is based on it. Your lives are shaped by it. You want to show me what you’ve done. I want to understand what it means to you and to your society. So go ahead and show me what you’ve done, in whatever way you wish. I’ll film the process. I’ll film your re-enactments. And we’ll combine this material to show what these events mean to you and your society."
And at some point, starting with—and I think I actually suspected that I would combine all of these different perpetrators from across the region, but I lingered on this one main character, Anwar Congo, because his pain was close to the surface, his memories were present, the past was with us as he would re-enact, and it was haunting. So, and he was a movie theater gangster, so he started to propose—he had this love of American movies. He started to propose these more and more complicated re-enactments that were inspired by the genres of his favorite movies, Hollywood movies from the ’50s and ’60s.
And he would invite in—I think to—he would watch his re-enactments, and he would always look pained. And then he would—but he wouldn’t express what was wrong. He would never say, "This is awful because it makes me look bad." The pain that he would—that would be all over his face when he would watch his re-enactments, he would not dare articulate, because to do so would be to admit what he did was wrong. And he’s never been forced to do so. He’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong. Normally, in documentaries about perpetrators, perpetrators deny what they’ve done, or they apologize, act apologetic about it, at least. And that’s because by the time we speak to them, they’ve been approached as perpetrators, they’ve been removed from power, they’ve been framed as people who have done something wrong, so they deny or they apologize. These men are still in power.
So, Anwar watching his re-enactments would look disturbed, and instead of saying why he’s disturbed, he would take that emotion and place it into something trivial, like "My clothes are wrong. My hair—I need to dye my hair. My acting isn’t good." So, he started to embellish the scenes and create these more and more surreal, more and more strange re-enactments, which I filmed because I understood they were allegories for a whole system of impunity—what happens to us collectively as individuals when we kill, when we have an original crime, we get away with it, we justify it, and therefore we cling to that justification, we persecute the survivors, lest they should challenge our version of the events. So, Anwar starts to embellish, and the motor, if you like, for these embellishments is his conscience.
And he brings in another death squad member, another member of his death squad named Adi. And the re-enactments get more and more emotional, more and more intense. And in the next clip, in the clip we’ll see here, it’s a moment where they’ve just re-enacted the torture and killing that happened in their office, downstairs from where Anwar does the cha cha cha earlier in the—in the earlier clip we saw. They re-enact the torture and killing in this office, and afterwards, they respond to it. And the other member of Anwar’s death squad, Adi, recognizes, wait a minute, this method, these re-enactments have the power to turn the entire official history on its head.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who’s speaking first.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: So it’s Adi. The character we’ll see speaking here is named Adi. He is the other surviving member of Anwar’s very elite death squad.
AMY GOODMAN: And he has flown in to do this film that you are filming.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, he flew in midway through the process. I was trying to meet him from the very beginning, after meeting Anwar, but Anwar kept him away from me. Anwar wouldn’t introduce me to him. His full name in Indonesian is Adi. There’s thousands and thousands of Adis in Jakarta. It was impossible to find him without Anwar’s help. Anwar only introduced us to him once Anwar was confident that he was indeed the star of The Act of Killing. So, at this point, midway, somewhere in the middle of the film, Adi has finally flown in from Jakarta, reunited with his old friend and former killing colleague, and they’re on the set, having just re-enacted the torture and killing that they did together in their youth.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Adi in The Act of Killing.
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] Listen, if we succeed in making this film, it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were cruel.
ANWAR CONGO: [translated] We’re the cruel ones.
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] If this film is a success. We must understand every step we take here. It’s not about fear. It’s 40 years ago, so any criminal case has expired. It’s not about fear. It’s about image. The whole society will say, "We always suspected it. They lied about the communists being cruel." It’s not a problem for us; it’s a problem for history. The whole story will be reversed—not 180 degrees, 360 degrees—if we succeed with this scene.
HERMAN KOTO: [translated] But why should we always hide our history, if it’s the truth?
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] No, the consequence is that everything Anwar and I have always said is false. It’s not the communists who were cruel.
HERMAN KOTO: [translated] But that’s true.
ADI ZULKADRY: [translated] I completely agree, but not everything true should be made public. I believe even God has secrets. I’m absolutely aware that we were cruel. That’s all I have to say. It’s up to you what to do about it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Adi, a killer in Indonesia—after Suharto came to power, who knows how many people he killed?—in this film, The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer is the director. So, he’s coming to realize—I mean, this is a smart guy—that this does not look very good for them.
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, this is a really—I think there’s a number of really interesting things about this. One of them is that Adi here says—warns everybody, "This is going to make us look bad." And, in fact, he only warns everybody this strongly once in the film, but in the process he did so many times. But everybody continued. Nobody heeds his warning.
And I think there’s a couple really important reasons for that. For the younger thugs, in the younger generation of paramilitary gangster leadership, as gangsters, fear is their capital. So they’re not participating in this film to look good; they’re participating in this film to look fearsome. And they’re only able, as we see them doing in the film, to go into a market and shake down the Chinese market stall owners—Chinese were, with a broad brush, attacked in 1965, labelled communist just by virtue of having been ethnically Chinese—they, these men, are not trying to look good, the other members of—the younger members, the Pancasila Youth. So they want to continue. Adi’s warning falls on deaf ears.
And I think, for Anwar, it’s particularly interesting why he doesn’t listen to his old best friend’s advice. I think it has to do with what Anwar is trying to do with this film. He is trying, actually, somehow, to deal with his own pain. He’s trying to deal with his nightmares. He finds a forum in the film to express a pain that the regime has no time for. The regime wants him to say it was heroic, it was great, so that, one, he can live with himself, all the other killers can live with themselves, and the survivors are kept suppressed and silenced. And suddenly, in the making of the film, he has a chance to deal with the ghosts that haunt him.
Earlier, in the first clip we saw, he dances on the roof. We see him—we cut right where he starts dancing the cha cha cha on the roof. But if you extend that and watch him dance the cha cha cha, most viewers will feel appalled. How can a man dance where he’s killed a thousand people? But just before he dances, as we will have noticed, he says he’s drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing, to forget what he’s done. So, somehow his pain, his conscience was there from the beginning. And then I think it is his effort to run away from the meaning of what he’s done that leads him to propose ever more complicated dramatizations. So, Anwar doesn’t listen to Adi’s warning here because Anwar actually is somehow trying to deal with his pain. He’s not trying to look like a hero. He’s not trying to simply revisit or restate the official history. He’s trying to actually run away from and experience—and these are two paradoxical human needs, I think—run away from and experience his pain.
AMY GOODMAN: In the film, The Act of Killing, it ends in a devastating way. Can you talk a little about what happens?
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, at the end of the film, I think that Anwar is not able to say the same kinds of things he’s saying throughout the whole film. He’s speaking the same kind of lines. He takes us back to that office, where we were at the beginning of the film, the first time I met him, where he shows how he killed and then danced the cha cha cha. He takes us back there. And it’s the first time we’ve gone back, indeed the first time I went back, in over the course of five years of shooting 1,200 hours of material. We go back to that office, and my intention was just to ask him to say what happened in that office. And he’s speaking very much the same words that he has at the beginning of the film. But his body, it’s as though his body physically is rebelling against the line that he’s been speaking. He can no longer utter these words and not—and not—and bear it. His body starts—he starts to retch. And it’s as though, I think, he’s trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, only to find that he is the ghost, in the sense that he is what—his past haunts him, and he is his past, and he’ll never be free of it. And so nothing comes up. He has lost all of his swagger.
And in a way, it’s an enduring metaphor for how the film has come to Indonesia, in the sense that there’s an official—they’re still—in school, they’re still teaching that the communists were—they’re still teaching in school that the victims of the genocide deserved what they got, that it was all—they’re teaching that the genocide was justified and talking about it as a kind of heroic chapter in the nation’s history, without going into the details of the killing. But Indonesians themselves are starting to recognize that this is, like Anwar’s words at the end, a kind of hollow line, because the act of killing is making such a difference there.
AMY GOODMAN: You have shown this film in Indonesia?
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. Indonesia has political film censors. They still censor films and books that deal with human rights violations. They ban them. We knew that if we just submitted the film to the censors before there was Indonesian support for the film, that it would be banned. If it’s banned, we knew—if it were banned, we knew that that would be an excuse for the paramilitary groups in Indonesia or for the army to physically attack screenings with impunity, because it becomes a crime to screen the film at all.
So, to get around that, all last autumn, we held screenings at the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta for Indonesia’s leading news producers, news publishers, news journalists, filmmakers, human rights advocates, survivors’ groups, historians, educators, writers, artists. Everybody really embraced the film—you could even say loved the film—said we have to show this film, we have to get this film out.
The news editors did—and publishers, did perhaps the most interesting thing. If you imagine you’re the editor of Indonesia’s biggest news magazine, a magazine called Tempo, you’re very much part of the establishment. And you’re in your late middle age, and you see this movie where the founding fathers of that establishment, of your regime, are totally broken by the end of the film. The main character is tormented and ravaged. The side characters are hollow empty shells of human beings. And you’re faced with a pretty stark choice. They’re not enjoying—these men are not enjoying their old age as the heroes they’ve been telling themselves and the rest of the country that they are. They’re destroyed. You’re faced with a stark choice, if you’re the editor of Indonesia’s biggest news magazine: Do you want to grow old as a perpetrator, or do you want to take a stance?
And the editors of Tempo magazine took a particularly brave stance. They said, "We have to break our silence about this. After The Act of Killing, we need to open up about what happened. And we need to marshal fresh evidence to do so." So they sent 40 journalists, approximately 40 journalists, around the country to regions where they did not know that killings had even happened. And they basically wanted to see if The Act of Killing was a repeatable experiment. Are there other Anwars out there?
And they—to their horror, but I do not think to their surprise, they found that everywhere they—everywhere they sent people, they came back with—they could immediately find the local perpetrator, and the local perpetrator was a criminal. The killers were criminals, put in positions of power by the army and then encouraged to boast about what they’d done ever since, so they would be these feared proxies of the government.
And these men, within two weeks, last September, they gathered—the 40 journalists gathered hundreds and hundreds of pages of perpetrators boasting. They edited it down to 75 pages. They combined it with 25 pages of coverage of the film—reviews, contextualizing essays, interviews—and they came out with a special double edition of Tempo magazine on the 1st of October last year. It sold out immediately. It reprinted. It sold out again. It reprinted.
This set the tone for the rest of the media to start—to break their 47-year silence about what happened, to talk about the genocide as a genocide. Killers in Indonesia will no longer boast. At the same time, the country has no illusions about Anwar being the kind of mascot of the genocide. He’s been contextualized perhaps as one of 10,000 perpetrators of his level.