Anwar Congo is hanging his friend. Standing on his old killing floor, he pulls the wire tight around the man’s neck, trying to demonstrate the efficient, brutal way he used to do it. The former leader of a death squad that took part in the 1965-66 genocide in North Indonesia, Anwar estimates that he personally killed as many as a thousand men, women and children. Now an elderly man with a sad, kindly smile and plagued by nightmares he can’t quite douse with alcohol or drugs, he is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary new documentary The Act of Killing, in which Anwar recreates his crimes against humanity in the form of the gangster movies, westerns and musicals he grew up loving.
Later in the film he returns again to the killing floor, situated on the roof of a shop that today sells knock-off designer handbags. Where earlier he was laughing, joking and doing the cha-cha-cha, now he looks stricken. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what he did, Anwar stumbles to the edge of the floor and promptly throws up, making a retching noise that would surely be familiar to him: it sounds like someone dying.
Joshua hadn’t intended to direct a film about mass murder. Sent to North Sumatra to produce a documentary about a community struggling to organise a union, he lived amongst plantation workers whose families had survived the genocide. “Their parents and grandparents had been accused of being Communist sympathisers, although they weren’t necessarily—they were just in a workers’ union,” Joshua says. “They were put in concentration camps and sent out to be killed.” Despite the passage of half a century and the recent end of the dictatorship, the survivors’ families were still under constant surveillance from the military. This was not only their main obstacle in organising the union, but also hampered Joshua’s efforts to film them. “As we started focusing on the genocide, we fell under their suspicion and the military police would stop us. It was frightening for everybody.”
It was around this time that Joshua interviewed his first perpetrator, who immediately started bragging about all the people he’d killed. “I realised this was an extraordinary situation. The perpetrator wasn’t a psychopath. He was boastful because he was in power and no one had ever forced him to admit that what he did was wrong. It was like if the Nazis had won.” He recognised the potency of speaking to the murderers rather than their victims, as well as the shocking ease of doing so.
Joshua redirected his efforts. “I filmed every perpetrator I could find, asking, ’Who else do you know? Are there any other members of your death squad still alive? How about the commanders?’ Within minutes of meeting them, they were all offering to take me to where they had killed, to show me how they’d done it. I worked my way across the region, realising that these men were talking about how tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people had been killed in this one area. And no one had ever documented it before.”
He understood by then how the killings had occurred, but Joshua wanted to grasp the nature of the boasting. “Why were they doing it? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves?” To learn more, he started encouraging the perpetrators to take part in simple re-enactments of their killings. “I was saying, ’Look, you want to show me? You’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in history. Your whole society is based on it. If you’re so keen to tell me what you’ve done, go ahead and show me.”
Anwar was the 41st mass murderer that Joshua interviewed. “I lingered on him because of his pain and his trauma,” he says. “Anwar’s sense that what he did was wrong was not just there under the surface whilst he was boasting, it was motivating it. He was this outrageous allegory for impunity, but his attitude was this rather desperate, defensive effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.”
Joshua continued to film for another half a decade with Anwar, travelling to Indonesia for three or four months at a time. “I would come back with an enormous amount of footage. If it were the days of celluloid it would have taken up an aeroplane hanger.” The basic reenactments were replaced by more and more elaborate genre parodies, spurred on by Anwar’s dissatisfaction with the results. “When I would screen the footage back to him, he saw that there was something wrong with the picture. But he wouldn’t dare say what it was: that the whole thing was rotten.”
Joshua speaks in perfectly-constructed miniature essays, as you’d expect from a widely-published academic, but it becomes obvious that his emotional investment in the film is as deep as his intellectual engagement with its meaning. When reflecting upon his complex relationship with Anwar, he becomes uncharacteristically emotional. “Not for one second did I forget my moral judgement of what he did, of course, but the demand that I placed on myself is that I would always treat these people as human beings and let myself become as close as they would let me,” he says. “The thing about Anwar is, not only is he charming, but he’s nice. He was the most caring person on the set. When you become close to someone you let down your guard and you let them in, so when they show you something horrible it’s really painful. You’re vulnerable in a different way. To go with him on that journey into the horror of what he did—intimately, and not to flinch—that was hard, and really painful. I had nightmares throughout the process.”
The film purposefully mirrors Joshua’s ambivalence towards his subjects, walking, as he describes it, a tightrope between repulsion and sympathy. There are parts of The Act of Killing that are among the most harrowing footage you’re likely to see in a documentary. Yet it can be riotously funny as well. Throughout the film, Joshua uses comedy and Anwar’s affability to disarm the viewer. He describes a scene where Anwar and his co-stars try on different hats whilst making one of the re-enactments: “It’s very funny and lovely and they’re open and we like them in that moment. We warm to them as human beings and then in the next scene they do something horrible, violent, cruel.
“Normally in film you prepare the viewer by giving cues, but I tried to do the opposite. We enter the most terrible moments in the film with them, arm in arm, so we can see how it is that we human beings do these things to each other. What the film demands is that the viewer put themselves in Anwar’s shoes. If they identify even a small part of themselves for one moment, the whole edifice whereby we divide the world into good guys and bad guys collapses.”
As traumatic as The Act of Killing can be to watch, it’s nearly impossible to look away from. The film is so dense with powerful, unforgettable moments, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes funny, that it’s unsurprising to learn how many thousands of hours of footage it’s been distilled from. Beyond its striking imagery, however, there’s something utterly transfixing about the perpetrators’ apparent nonchalance towards the crimes, their brazenness inspiring a mixture of horror and fascination. It’s hard to believe that such evil could not only be unpunished but rewarded.
Due to the continued presence of the genocide’s perpetrators within Indonesian society, honest discussion of the killings has always been taboo, but after screening over 500 times in 95 cities, The Act of Killing’s release has triggered open national debate on the subject at last. A not-unexpected side effect is that the killers don’t boast about their crimes any more, but Joshua thinks their newfound reticence is less to do with personal reflection than the result of fear of public reaction, whilst privately they hold on to the excuses they’ve employed for almost half a century. “If you or I had killed and had the opportunity to justify what we’d done, I’m quite sure we would, because otherwise you have to wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror and see a murderer,” Joshua says. “The irony is that the justification of genocide is not a symptom of the lack of remorse or humanity, it’s the opposite. It’s the sign of the fact that it shows that they know it’s wrong. That’s why they’re so stridently denying it. ”
The Act of Killing is a shocking exploration of how great wrongs can be tolerated by an entire society, but what’s most powerful about the film is its depiction of the devastating moral toll genocide takes upon its perpetrators themselves, and how that unexpressed guilt can be exploited to do further harm. “So, you’ve killed,” Joshua elaborates, “and then the government gives you an excuse in the form of anti-Communist propaganda to justify what you’ve done as something heroic. And you cling to that excuse for dear life.
“The tragedy is that once you’ve corrupted yourself by killing one person and justifying it that way, when the regime asks you to kill others for the same reason you have to, because if you don’t it’s tantamount to admitting that it was wrong the first time. It demands more and more and more evil, including oppressing your victims so they keep quiet and don’t challenge your version of events. The film shows that the very people who would be enjoying the fruits of their victory if they were genuine heroes are in fact somehow destroyed by what they’ve done.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Andy Lo Pò.