Death Squads Re-created 'The Act Of Killing' For The Camera

Jan 12, 2014
Originally published on January 12, 2014 11:41 am
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Nominations for the Academy Awards will be announced this coming week. One film widely expected to make the list is the documentary "The Act of Killing." It was just released on DVD and digital platforms last week. The film is about a massacre of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. But rather than hearing from the victims, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer takes an unusual perspective. He shows the perpetrators reenacting their crimes. The result is haunting, even revolting at points and hard to describe.

So I asked Oppenheimer how he explains the film.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: In 1965, there was a military coup in Indonesia in which shortly afterwards up to a million or even two million opponents of the new military dictatorship were killed by the new dictatorship. And the people who did it included civilian death squads and the army. These people have been in power in one form or another ever since. And when they talk about what they've done, instead of apologizing for it, acting ashamed about it, they boast about it.

And to understand the nature of their boasting I let them traumatize what they've done in whatever ways they switched and filmed the process.

MARTIN: So this is a film about the making of a film. Was it your suggestion to these murderers, really, that they act out their crimes in the form of a film?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, actually I began making this film collaborating closely with a community of survivors of the 1965 genocide. And when the army found out what we were doing, the army would no longer let the survivors participate in the film. And the survivors said, OK, before you give up, why don't you fill some of the perpetrators? Living around us in this village or the aging death squad leaders who killed our relatives. Maybe they'll tell you what they did, how they did it because, in fact, we don't know the details.

I didn't know if it was safe to speak to the killers at all about what happened. But I found that every single perpetrator in this village and in this area was openly boastful about what they'd done, inviting me to the places where they killed, launching into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed, often with a smile on their face often in front of their families, their wives, their children, even their grandchildren.

And trying to understand what's going here, I started to screen some of that material back for them, and found that they always looked dissatisfied with what we filmed and would propose sort of improvements - if you like, embellishments. And so, I started to propose to the perpetrators I was meeting, look, you want to show me what you've done so go ahead and show me what you've done, in whatever way you wish. I will help you create any reenactments you want to make.

But I will also film you and your fellow death squad veterans discussing what you want to show, what you want to leave out and why you want to show things. And thereby hopefully create a documentary of it shows how you want to be seen by the world and how maybe you really see yourself.

MARTIN: They go to a village and re-create the burning of these homes and torture of these people.


MARTIN: It's a horrific scene. At that point your main character, Anwar Congo, does he start to question what they're doing?

OPPENHEIMER: He does. But I think its first important to say that we don't go to a village and burn down houses. We build a movie set. And the violence, the chaos, the pain is made to feel as real as we were capable of making it because it starts, as you said, to have a real effect on Anwar - the main character of the film.

Watching the chaos unfold, he said: I never imagined that this would look so awful. And he starts to see in the mirror of the movie really what he's done.

MARTIN: There's one particular scene I'd love for you to be able to recount. It's a Chinese man, who is Anwar's neighbor, has agreed to be part of this project. And he's playing victims in the film, in the scenes that they're shooting. And in a moment of real candor starts recounting his own tale. Can you describe that scene and how Anwar responds?

OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. This neighbor of Anwar's decides to open up. He then goes on to tell the story of how killers came to the house late at night, knocked on the door and his stepfather went out. And all the family heard was a scream and they never saw the stepfather alive again. He, as an 11-year-old boy, had to bury his stepfather with his grandfather.

The amazing thing about this moment is that Anwar's fellow death squad member, Adi, is watching this reenactment as it unfolds. And seeing the force of the emotions that come to the surface here, he recognizes suddenly what this film will do and, indeed, what it has done in Indonesia; which is that it will turn the official history on its head. It will show that the perpetrators were wrong and undermine the perpetrators position of power in society. And he warns everybody to stop making the film.

MARTIN: Did his concerns spread? Did Anwar share those concerns?

OPPENHEIMER: No, I think Anwar decides to continue because he's, in fact, not making the film in order to look good or to burnish his image as a hero. I think Anwar actually is making the film because finally, for the first time in his life, he's been given an occasion to deal somehow with his pain.

MARTIN: Are you still in touch with any of the men you interviewed, in particular Anwar Congo, your main character?

OPPENHEIMER: When Anwar saw the film, he was silent for a long time. He was tearful. Finally he said: Josh, this film shows what it's like to be me. And he and I remain in touch and perhaps always will because we've been through a very painful, long and intimate journey together that we'll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand.

MARTIN: Joshua Oppenheimer. His documentary "The Act of Killing" is on the short list for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards. He spoke to us from our studios in New York.

Joshua, thank you so much.



MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.