Documentary Maker Joshua Oppenheimer Reimagines ‘The Act of Killing’

Indonesian death squads act out their murders Hollywood-style, ground new film to the root of evil.

Two men have bloody makeup put on them in the documentary The Act of Killing

Perpetrators of the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia get made up for their closeup in The Act of Killing. (Photo: Courtesy of Final Cut for Real Productions)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

Joshua Oppenheimer was in Indonesia during the early 2000s collecting footage for his first film, The Globalization Tapes. The documentary centered on a group of plantation workers in Sumatra organizing a union to combat the use of toxic chemicals as a weed killer. Oppenheimer wondered why some members of the community were reluctant to join the union efforts when the benefits were overwhelming.

“I was told, ‘Well, the person next door to us is the person who killed my aunt,’ ” Oppenheimer says. “Another person on the film said, ‘Two houses down is the person who killed my parents.’ ”

Naturally, the filmmaker knocked on the killers’ doors. Seven years later, those cold calls have resulted in The Act of Killing, one of the most buzzed-about films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

MORE: ‘Granito’: A Small Film Seeks Justice for Guatemalan Genocide

When General Suharto led an overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, an estimated one million civilians were killed. One of the few things more shocking than the fact that killers still live among the survivors of the massacres is that the aging exterminators signed on with Oppenheimer as willing participants to demonstrate their atrocities for his cameras.

Using the perpetrators’ vanity and pride to snare them, Oppenheimer offered the killers a chance to act in movie scenes that would re-create the feeling of the murders they’re responsible for. The results are not necessarily reenactments, but garish musical numbers and tense interrogation sequences pulled from gangster movies.

Clearly, the perpetrators see themselves in a heroic light. The Act of Killing illustrates the profound disconnect between the way we can see ourselves and our actions, and how that disconnect plays out in the even greater disconnect that allows people to embrace the world’s truly evil forces.

“I was trying to understand how these characters imagined themselves, not just as individuals, but as an entire regime that emerged and was built out of mass murder,” Oppenheimer tells TakePart. “The idea of giving them the chance to stage themselves in whatever ways they wished to re-create their past seemed [to be] the perfect way to understand why they are so proud of what they did and what’s really lying behind that pride.”

The Act of Killing is deeply unsettling and horrifyingly absurd. It also demonstrates the soldiers’ triumphant perspective on ridding the country of people they suspected to be communists. Their pride in the killings appears to be deeply ingrained into Indonesian culture. The myth of the righteous cleansing maintains power to this day, in part accounting for why paramilitary groups such as the Pancasila Youth continue to exert control.

For Oppenheimer, however, the problem of harmful national mythology isn’t restricted to Indonesia. He hopes audiences will think about their individual roles in the conditions of their own societies. 

“I want people to see themselves in the film,” says the director. “I want them to think about the current policies of torture, the whole global set-up where our prosperity is built on exploitation, both at home in the United States certainly and especially exploitation of workers abroad, and environmental devastation. [There’s a] whole tradition in documentaries about films about victims—we’re actually much closer to perpetrators than we like to realize.”

What are some national disconnects that we have at home? Leave your perceptions or denials in COMMENTS.

Comments ()