Short-listed for an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, The Act of Killing examines the massacre of an estimated 1.2 million “communists” and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in 1956-66. But rather than exploring the topic from the victims point of view, director Joshua Oppenheimer lets the executioners and perpetrators tell their stories. Oppenheimer spent years with Anwar Congo, an executioner who became a central point in the documentary. Switching the usual way genocide documentaries are told, Oppenheimer had those men reenact the killings, creating a surreal and riveting film that has already prompted action in Indonesia and revealed the open secret. His film reminds us that movies are not mere entertainment: they are political, powerful, and extremely personal. Recently, City Paper caught up with Oppenheimer to talk about his work.

City Paper: How does The Act of Killing fit into the context of your interests as a filmmaker?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I do not see myself primarily as a documentary maker. I see myself as someone who uses film as a way of exploring the world. I’m particularly interested in how what appears to be our factual, everyday reality is, in fact, constituted by millions of interlocking stories and fantasies, half-remembered sometimes, second-rate sometimes, second-hand most of the time. I’ve always been interested in how we tell ourselves stories unconsciously to make ourselves who we are and to create our world. Whenever you film anybody, they become self-conscious; they start to stage themselves unconsciously. And the script, if you like, for that performance that they inevitably offer up is some notion of how they’d like to be seen based on how they have seen others. When you film someone, it’s an opportunity to put reality through a prism and reveal all of these interlocking fantasies that are normally invisible. Normally, non-fiction filmmakers point the camera at somebody and try to get beyond that moment of self-consciousness by getting the person to “act normal” so that they can claim to be looking at reality through a transparent window. But documentary is never that. You’re never a fly on the wall. You’re always working with your subject to create a series of occasions in which a person will prolong an argument, make a concession, preen or perform. And if you think of non-fiction filmmaking in that way, it is always inherently collaborative and often performative. This is what I’ve been interested in: using cinema to explore the way our seemingly factual realities are impregnated by fiction

CP: You initially made a film about female Indonesian plantation workers who were dying from contact with a poisonous herbicide but who were afraid to unionize for fear they would be labeled communist sympathizers and meet the same fatal end their relatives had met in the ’60s. What led to The Act of Killing ?

JO: When we finished that film, they asked us to come back right away and make another film. They wanted to make a film about why they were afraid — not so much about what happened in 1965, but about what it’s like today to live among the men who killed their relatives. We came back right away, but the army found out, and they could no longer participate, so they suggested we talk to the perpetrators. To our horror and astonishment, all of them were immediately open in recounting grisly details of mass killing, often with smiles on their faces, often in front of their wives, children, and grandchildren. And in this contrast, between survivors who were forced into silence and perpetrators who were boasting, telling things far more incriminating than the survivors could ever tell, I had this feeling that I had wandered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. And I knew that I would give as many years of my life as it would take to understand the situation. I showed that material of these village death squad leaders to survivors who wanted to see it and to the human rights community in Jakarta, asking them, “What’s going on here? Why do they seem so boastful? What does this mean?” and everybody said, “You’re onto something terribly important. Keep filming the perpetrators because any Indonesian who sees this will finally be forced to acknowledge the true nature of this regime. Film the perpetrators and you will make a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.'” Everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it, maybe even too afraid to remember it.

CP: What inspired you to suggest to the perpetrators that they reenact the killings for your film?

JO: I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find, working my way from plantation to plantation up the chain of command from the countryside to the city. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. All of them, however, were boastful, all of them were open, all of them were taking me to the places they had killed, launching into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed and then complaining that they hadn’t remembered to bring along a machete, for example, to use as a prop. I proposed to them, “You’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. I want to know what it means to you and your society; you want to show me what you’ve done. Show me what you’ve done in whatever way you wish. I’ll film the process and the reenactments. But I’ll also film you and your former death squad veterans talking about what you want to show and what you don’t want to show and why, and thereby make a film that is a documentary of the imagination that shows what this means to you, what this means to your society, and, above all, how you want to be seen, and how you see yourself.” They understood that the reenactments were not for a separate film, but only for The Act of Killing. In that sense, it was not a trick to get them to open up; it was a response to their openness.

CP: How did Anwar become the focus of the film?

JO: I lingered on Anwar because his pain was somehow close to the surface, and I realized maybe all of this boasting that I’ve been filming is not really a sign of pride at all. I had the sense that maybe boasting and remorse are two sides of the same coin. Following that I spent five years filming with Anwar. The final scene in The Act of Killing, when he goes back to the rooftop and starts to retch, is the end of that five years. The scene on the roof in the beginning [of the film] was shot on the first day I met him.

CP: I wondered about the chronology of the scenes. That final scene, for me, was perhaps the most impactful. It’s almost as if his own biology cannot deny what he did.

JO: Yeah. It’s almost as if there’s some residue of humanity that is physically unable to stomach all of the lies. Like his body won’t accept it anymore, like he’s physically trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him, but what haunts him is his past. He is the ghost. We are our pasts.

CP: While Anwar sometimes demonstrates how he killed, he most often positions himself in the role of victim in the reenactments. Is this a kind of self-flagellation or attempt to gain our sympathy?

JO: Actually, it’s something he does from the very beginning. On the very first day of filming, he was dancing with a wire around his neck. After he showed me how he killed, he said, “Now I have to show you how the victims died.” And it happens every night in his nightmares when he imagines himself to be the victim. Anwar seems drawn to act it out in the same way a trauma victim may be drawn to talk about a traumatic event. Maybe by playing the victim, he is building up a kind of cinematic psychic scar tissue by replacing the unspeakable horror with something relatively knowable.

CP: The film takes on a surreal quality as the reenactments they perform appear to reenactments of scenes that were originally staged and scripted.

JO: I think acting was always part of the act of killing for Anwar and for most of the “movie theater gangsters.” Killing is an inherently human act. To protect ourselves from that frightening reality we lie to ourselves by saying “killing is inhumane.” Actually, what we mean by that is “killing is wrong.” But it is human. Other species may kill, but none do so with the gusto that human beings do. Because killing is traumatic, though, we distance ourselves from it, whether by using drones or by using the discourse of the “lesser evil,” as Obama does. Some perpetrators I met used alcohol to distance themselves from the act of killing, but [Anwar and his friends] used the cinema. Anwar may have gotten a violent message about killing from Hollywood movies, but I think that is probably incidental and not essential. He could have figured out how to kill bloodlessly without watching gangster movies. Anwar’s most vivid example of being inspired by movies is an Elvis Presley musical—coming out of the cinema intoxicated by the rush of cinematic identification with Elvis, dancing across the street, and “killing happily.” Elvis Presley movies are not violent, but they are dumb. The Act of Killing, make no mistake, is a film about the dangers of denial, but in the escapist fantasy of the cinema, Anwar found a way of acting that could distance himself from the act of killing while he was killing. He could protect himself from the trauma of it by enjoying the performance he was throwing himself into while killing. And in that sense, his reenactments are a repetition of the process of performance by which he distanced himself from what he was doing in the first place. That’s why it’s a way of running away from what he has done.

CP: Speaking of performance, the film challenges the concept of what it means to act or put on a role. There are moments where what starts as a performance suddenly looks like real, unfabricated emotion. Where is the line between pretend and reality, and how can we tell the difference?

JO: Reality is always made up of pretense. In the moment when the mask slips, you can glimpse the aftershock of the performance. You can glimpse the real, which is somewhat beyond words. That’s why cinema is a particularly effective medium for this kind of exploration because cinema is not a good medium for words: it’s a great medium for pauses, for doubt, for silence, for moments when characters don’t believe the words they’re speaking. And The Act of Killing is a film about a man who doesn’t believe the words he is saying, and the evolution of his growing doubt.

CP: Anwar and Herman stage scenes that invoke the gangster and western genres, but the most bizarre sequences of film come during the musical numbers. How did these scenes fit into the project?

JO: I told them, “You can make whatever scenes you want about the killings or about your feelings about the killings,” so all of their scenes fit into those categories. The “Born Free” number comes after Anwar played the victim. He wanted to cleanse himself of the horror and trauma he felt when playing the victim by staging a kind of cleansing ritual at a mountain river. [But they] changed the scene into a grotesque vision of heaven where Anwar is awarded a medal by a victim who thanks him for sending him to heaven … When he proposed that scene, I was so disappointed. I agreed to shoot the scene because I knew that it would be a powerful metaphor for the impunity that I was charged by the survivors and the human rights community with exposing. I think I was not patient enough in my disappointment there because I didn’t recognize, as I said earlier, the boasting and guilt may be two sides of the same coin, that this may be the next step that Anwar had to go through before swinging wildly the other way and recognizing the horror of what he’s done. The other musical number with the fish was to be based on one of Anwar’s favorite songs, “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee, which is a song about disappointment, and Anwar was disappointed because he never achieved the same status or wealth in the paramilitary movement that some of his friends achieved. There were these moments of pure poetry embodying the truth of what this film is about, namely how we human beings get lost in the fantasies and the lies that we tell ourselves to justify our actions … The final image of the film is Anwar and his friends dancing this sort of dance macabre at the edge of the abyss.

CP: Many shots draw attention to Western influence in Indonesia, such as shots of McDonald’s, cowboy hats, ads, and golf courses. To what extent is this film also about us?

JO: It’s a story about consumer capitalism. Everything that is touching my body right now, everything touching your body, I guess, is made in places like Indonesia where there has been mass political violence, where perpetrators have won, which is, I think, the rule and not its exception, where, in their victory, they have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are too suppressed to get the human cost of what we purchase included in the price tag that we pay. Let me give you an example. A barrel of palm oil costs a few Euros, but it costs the women who spray the herbicides — the people who make it — their lives. So we pay nothing like the real cost of palm oil when we buy a tub of margarine or a tube of skin cream. We pay a tiny, tiny fraction of the real cost. And yet, included in that tiny fraction, part of why we’re able to pay such a low price for things we buy, is a small premium, a small markup, that goes to goons and thugs and gangsters like Anwar and his friends all over the world who keep the people who make everything we buy afraid and keep, therefore, what we buy, cheap. In that sense, if Anwar and his friends are monsters, which they’re not, they’re human, but if they’re monsters, we depend on monsters like them for our daily living. The Act of Killing does not depict a far off reality that has little to do with our everyday reality. It is the underbelly of our reality. We are, in a way, the unwitting hosts of Anwar and his friends’ cannibalistic feast. Everybody who sees The Act of Killing around the world already knows this, and that’s the key to why people start to see themselves in Anwar and recognize that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we would like to think. The film becomes an apocalyptic and nightmarish vision of global reality today.

CP: Adi (a former death squad member) exits a plane and makes his entrance into the film wearing a T-shirt that reads “apathetic.” Did he know he would be filmed exiting the plane?

JO: I was astonished. It was this sort of comfortable cynicism that I felt like I might see in a late middle-aged neighbor of my dad in suburban Maryland. It felt so familiarly American, and the fact that his shirt said “apathetic” is sort of beyond belief. No, I don’t think he knew — I don’t recall warning him that he would be filmed coming off the plane.

CP: What kind of impact has the film made in Indonesia?

JO: The film has already had an enormous impact in Indonesia. Anwar has, first of all, seen the film; he was very tearful and said, “This film shows what it’s like to be me. I’m relieved to finally have been able to show what these things mean rather than just what I did.” The film has indeed come to Indonesia in the way that survivors and human rights activists hoped it would. Indonesian perpetrators no longer boast as a result of the film. The mainstream media, which had been silent ever since 1965, now publishes extensive reports about the genocide as a genocide. We made the film available for free download for anyone in Indonesia, and the film is probably the most discussed, most loved work of culture in post-independence Indonesian history. It’s made quite a mark. I never dared hope that this could happen, but the film has opened a space for Indonesians to finally talk about their painful and intractable problems and thereby hopefully begin to address them. You can’t address problems if you’re too afraid to acknowledge them.

CP: We’ll be rooting for you to get that Oscar nomination.

JO: Thank you very much. Let’s hope that whatever good happens with this film that it keeps the issues of impunity alive everywhere, in Indonesia and at home.