After the Act of Killing’s director Joshua Oppenheimer began talking with several survivors of a killing spree in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965 at the hands of thugs drafted by the military to weed out accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, he had no idea he would become friends with one of those killers. The documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, the last of the 41 perpetrators he met during a total of eight years trying to make this film. Speaking over the phone from a hotel in New York City, Oppenheimer said they still speak. “He and I have remained in touch every three to four weeks,” he said, “and I think somehow we always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate, ultimately transformative journey together.”
The transformation comes about in the film on a rather surreal but brilliantly therapeutic level when Oppenheimer asks Congo and other executioners to act out the killings in brilliantly shot if hokey dramatic reenactments that cover genres from gangster films, musicals to ghost stories. The director noted that the reenactments were designed to work on a higher meta-level as being symptomatic of the perpetrator’s boasting and impunity. However, something surprising happened with Congo. “Each time we would shoot a scene he would watch the scene, and he would be very disturbed by what he saw, but he would not dare to say what was wrong with the scene,” said Oppenheimer. “Basically, he would displace the guilt on something trivial like, the costumes are bad, the acting or the genre, and he would propose a new scene. So in a sense he was trying to run away from his pain the entire time, and that’s the fuel for the whole process.”
He points out that with the Act of Killing he was not seeking to make a sentimental film or a psycho-drama. “That would be obscene and wrong,” he emphasizes, adding that this all happened rather serendipitously. He says he unconsciously focused on Congo but, in hindsight, remorse underlined all his seeming boasting. No matter the argument, deflecting or escape, below it all lies a conflicted awareness of guilt. “I don’t think I met a single perpetrator over all these years that did not know that what they did was wrong,” Oppenheimer stated.
During their first meeting, Congo admits to Oppenheimer that he was often drunk or high during the killings. At first, the admission seems to highlight the “thrill” of killing, but in actually it was one of the many ways Congo found an escape from confronting the horror of his actions. “That’s right,” Oppenheimer agreed. “Anwar’s conscience is present from the very beginning.”
Congo also notes that gangster movies inspired his methods of killings, including garroting by wire. He also throws around an appreciation for Pacino and Brando.
However, don’t blame violence in movies for his behavior because Congo also notes a sense of euphoria after watching Elvis Presley musicals and stabbing people in the street. What’s up with that? Oppenheimer points out that something more sinister underlies these forms of cheap Hollywood films: numbing escapism. “Some people have made the link that violent movies cause violent behavior, but Elvis Presley musicals are the most vivid example [Congo] gives: of walking out of a midnight show dancing his way across the street, intoxicated by his love of Elvis and killing happily, and Elvis musicals are not violent. They’re just stupid, and I think the real risk is escapist storytelling. How we tell stories, all of us, you, me, everybody to escape our most painful and bitter truths.”
And this is what makes the Act of Killing, which climaxes in one of the most visceral scenes of remorse one will ever see committed to film, the most disturbing horror film you might ever experience.
You can read much more of my interview with Oppenheimer and watch the film’s trailer on the website of the Miami New Times and its art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the logo below:
The Act of Killing is in Indonesian and English with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is not rated (the violence is all staged and/or recalled as stories, but it’s more disturbing than you might be able to imagine). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami, for which I originally wrote this interview. It’s playing across the globe now, even having distribution in Indonesia. For worldwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).