'Act of Killing' restages a genocide, adding bizarre dance numbers

Josh Oppenheimer worked for a decade in Indonesia gathering material for "The Act of Killing" about the 1965 genocide in the country. He now says he can't go back to Indonesia because of concerns for his safety.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When documentary-maker Josh Oppenheimer went to Indonesia a few years ago, he felt as if he were visiting Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and finding the Nazis still in charge.

An estimated one million Indonesians died in an anti-communist purge after a 1965 military coup. Many of the people who acted as executioners still live in the communities and are celebrated for their part in the genocide.

This week, Oppenheimer is in the Twin Cities to present "The Act of Killing" the film he made about what he discovered.

When Oppenheimer set out to tell the story he found he had to do it through the perpetrators. Corruption runs rampant in Indonesia, and nearly a half century after the genocide, relatives of victims were still afraid to talk. So he went to the people who killed for the government and asked them what they had done.

"The answer to my shock and horror was boastful accounts of killing," Oppenheimer said. "Because the killings were most important single thing they had done in their lives and were the basis for whatever career they had afterwards."

Burning village
While the gangsters boasted about the glory of what they had done, they also didn't flinch from showing its brutality. They re-enacted a moment where a youth paramilitary group attacked a village and burned it to the ground.
Image courtesy Drafthouse Films

The killers were often petty gangsters roped in by the government to do their dirty work. They were lauded as heroes in their communities, even though they rarely had any evidence that the people they killed really were communists. Many still openly extort money and favors.

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Oppenheimer talked to dozens of them, before meeting Anwar Congo, who claimed to have killed a thousand people.

"What was particularly painful meeting Anwar was to finally be with a man whose pain was so close to the surface," the filmmaker said.

Anwar took Oppenheimer to a rooftop where he executed many of his victims. It was there Anwar did something very strange.

As the filming progressed some of the gangsters began showing discomfort with what they had done. Here Anwar Congo plays a prisoner being interrogated prior to being killed. Oppenheimer says Congo believes the film represents his experiences.
Image courtesy Drafthouse Films

"He dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he killed hundreds of people," Oppenheimer said.

For Oppenheimer, it was a truly surreal and horrifying moment.

"And I think in that moment I started to realize that the perpetrators' boasting, it's not necessarily a sign of the perpetrators lack of remorse, but perhaps it's the opposite," he said. "It's a sign that they are desperately trying to convince themselves that what they did was right."

Oppenheimer asked Anwar Congo if he could make a film of his story -- and offered to tell the story the way Congo wanted it told.

"I want to know what it means to you. I want you to show me what you have done, so show me what you have done however you wish." Oppenheimer told Congo. "I will film the process, I will film the re-enactments. We'll combine these things and create essentially a new form of documentary that answers these questions of what does this mean to your society, what does this mean to you, how do want to be seen? How do you see yourself?"

Congo and his friends leapt at the chance, not only talking about and recreating hideous crimes, but also scripting and performing bizarre dance numbers intended to glorify what they had done.

In one scene, gangster Anwar Congo (in the dark robe) envisions entering heaven and being thanked by his victims for having killed them.
Image courtesy Drafthouse Films

In one scene, Congo imagines ascending to heaven where he meets one of his victims. The man presents him with a medal and thanks him for executing him.

"Even as the scene is tacky, even as it is in terrible taste, it is also undeniably majestic and moving," Oppenheimer said. "So it's a moment when we don't laugh at them scornfully. We actually cry at the tragedy of it all."

In time in "The Act of Killing" Anwar Congo comes to terms with the horror of what he did.

Because the film was likely to be censored in Indonesia, Oppenheimer arranged a series of press showings. It sparked a lot of interest, and broke a longstanding silence about the genocide.

"Starting with Indonesia's leading news magazine, the media began opening up about the killing," Oppenheimer said.

A national dialog began on what happened. Oppenheimer said he cannot return to Indonesia because of concerns about his safety. The bulk of the Indonesian crewmembers on the film are listed as anonymous for the same reason.

While Indonesia seems far away, Oppenheimer said, the story resonates in the United States. He points out many countries making goods for the developed world share similar histories, so he feels a close connection.

"The shirt I am wearing now in a sense I feel is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us," he said.

If nothing else comes of the film, Oppenheimer said, at least many of the killers have stopped boasting about what they did.

Oppenheimer will introduce the Minnesota premier of "The Act of Killing" tonight at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then a screening of the longer directors cut tomorrow night. He will introduce the film when it opens theatrically at the Lagoon Theater on Friday and then return to the Walker Saturday for a master class.